Locally unwanted land use

I had a tough decision to make this evening: should I watch NCIS or the premiere of V (starring Morena Baccarin of Firefly fame)?

Well, instead of making the tough decision, I went to Dr. Richard Showers’ Huntsville City Council District One Town Meeting.  The main topic of the meeting was the City’s proposed “Correctional Center Zoning”, which will be voted on this Thursday night at the City Council meeting.  This issue doesn’t seem to have a good solution, so unfortunately the City Council must vote on the least bad solution – a real-life tough decision that weighs heavily on our elected officials.

Some background:  in February 2009 the City received a letter from a Federal Bureau of Prisons contractor (described by Mayor Tommy Battle as a “litigious group”) asking for guidance on locating a “residential re-entry center” or “correctional transitional housing” in Huntsville.  As of that date the clock stopped in a way (and started in another way).  According to City Attorneys, the City is required to allow public or private (contracted) correctional facilities and can only deal with zoning that was in place as of February 2009 (clock stop).  The City asked for and received two moratoriums in order to develop zoning ordinances for correctional facilities – but the deadline is December 23, 2009 (clock running).  Notable quotes: City Planner Marie Bostick – “we didn’t go looking for this”; City Administrator Rex Reynolds – “we need a managed response”; Mayor Battle – “let’s control it”.

The City Council votes Thursday to approve or disapprove the Zoning Ordinance proposed by the Planning Department and approved by the Planning Commission.  The Ordinance allows for development in large areas around the airport, close to the Toyota plant, and close to A&M in Chase (among other areas – see the maps at the link above).  No one wants a correctional facility 500 feet from their backyard (NIMBY – or as the hip kids call it, “locally unwanted land use”).  Councilman Will Culver announced tonight that he and Dr. Showers will both vote ‘No’ on the Ordinance.

If the Ordinance fails, it will take months to develop and approve another plan, during which time a correctional facility could be constructed pretty much anywhere in Huntsville.  Keep in mind that the proposed plan has been in the works since February – and that the City tried very hard to minimize the impact on residents – and that the City must develop broad guidelines that can withstand a legal challenge.

So these are the bad choices: vote Yes to zoning rules that will restrict the unwanted development to limited industrial areas, knowing that some people in the community will be harmed financially (and that their safety will be at risk) - or vote No and potentially expose the City to an unplanned facility (basically hoping that the City can come up with a better plan before the Bureau of Prisons acts).

It’s a tough decision – but that’s why our Mayor and City Council make the big bucks…  It’s also why elections matter.

***

Now let’s get into some meeting details and notes.  There were more than a dozen City officials in attendance: Mayor Battle, Councilmen Showers and Culver, City Administrator Reynolds, Police Chief Henry Reyes, Fire Chief Mike Sublett, Public Works Director Terry Hatfield, Community Development Director Michelle Jordan, and Assistant Planning Director Marie Bostick.

There were about 80 people or so in the crowd, including about 20 students from A&M’s Department of Urban Planning.  Stephanie Beecken of WAAY 31 reported on the meeting.

Public Works Director Hatfield said that he’s hired about 30 temps to help with curbside leaf pickup (it’s easier and better to mulch or compost your leaves).  Chief Sublett said that the Fire Department has 16 stations and is building a new station in Greenbrier (and could use about five more).  Chief Reyes said that 33 new cadets started at the Police Academy.  Community Development Director Jordan said that there will be a public hearing on the HUD Five Year Consolidated Plan Update (I missed the time – be on the lookout).

Councilman Showers said that he has “concern” for those who “worked real hard and saved their money to buy in that area” and that people “didn’t move to Carter Gin to be impacted by this type of situation”.

Councilman Culver made a point of saying that the zoning was “not racially motivated” and that he would like to see the zoning “proportionally distributed” around the City.  He noted that most of the available land was in his district near the airport, and that most of the residents in that area were white (he didn’t say white, but that’s what he said).

There were about 25 questions from the audience during the Q&A – bottom line – people don’t want it – other bottom line – “we can’t prohibit them” (Planner Lisa Aleddo). Another bottom line is that if you live in Madison County (or maybe even Madison) you don’t have the zoning protections – this only covers the City of Huntsville.

 The meeting wrapped up about 9PM and the City Planners stayed to answer all questions (including mine).  On the way out, I had the pleasure of speaking with Will Culver.  He took the time to explain to me his decision to vote against the Ordinance and details of the issue, which I truly appreciate.  From what I’ve seen, Culver is doing a great job as Councilman.

Let’s remind our politicians exactly who they work for

“Let’s remind our politicians exactly who they work for”.  Linda Lawrence received a standing ovation for this remark at the South Huntsville Civic Association meeting packed into Grissom’s auditorium Monday night.  Her SECOND standing ovation came after quoting from the Declaration of Independence – IMO the ovations were given out of appreciation for her efforts to hold the City and HHA accountable. 

The applause was also a warning shot to City officials who may find themselves out of office if they continue to pursue the unproven (or failed) policy of deconcentrating poverty. 

The South Huntsville Civic Association’s mission “is to unite residents of South Huntsville so we have one powerful voice that lets our local leaders know we expect them to: address our issues and concerns; operate government in a transparent manner”.  Their primary function “will be to act as a watchdog” for city government.  Their focus is on schools and safety

The Association is also planning to “screen candidates” and establish  a Political Action Committee (PAC) to fund candidates.  The meeting was attended by about 1200 citizens.

The group is headed by Mark Dummer and James Steele (disclosure – I put out yard signs for Steele when he ran for Mayor).  Challen Stephens of The Huntsville Times interviewed Dummer in this excellent article, “South Huntsville sends loud message”.  Stephens is an asset to Huntsville and I wish the Times had more reporters like him (and wrote more about local issues).

The meeting was moderated by a Huntsville Police Department Officer, who I’m certain is a nice guy, but IMO it is inappropriate to have a public meeting moderated by the Police.  Maybe someone with the HPD or City can explain that to us.

City Councilwoman Sandra Moon, Mayor Tommy Battle, and School Board Member Jennie Robinson gave introductory remarks; then Robinson gave a summary of the schools in the area, noting that enrollment at Grissom High School has increased (and it was already over-capacity) and that “some schools have been negatively impacted” by “Section 8 and affordable housing”.  Robinson noted that “historically, South Huntsville schools were not well-maintained” because of political correctness.  She closed by saying “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.

State Representative Mike Ball (R – 10) said that he ran for public office to ‘make the State Government more open, honest, and accountable’.  He described his proposed legislation to hold HHA accountable by: taking away their power of eminent domain, requiring public notification, and requiring the approval of the ELECTED City Council.  Ball promised to make passage of this bill his “top priority” next year.  Mike received applause after each part of his bill.

Several City Officials made presentations, including HPD South Precinct Captain Kenny Bryant, Terry Hatfield, Shane Davis, and Brenda Martin.  Civic Association leaders Mark Dummer and James Steele spoke about “holding elected officials accountable” and asked people to join the organization.

Then Linda Lawrence spoke…  Lawrence described Huntsville Community Rights, an organization formed to provide “facts about the intentions of the Huntsville Housing Authority”.  Lawrence said about deconcentrating poverty that there is “absolutely no proof that this works” and that “social engineering is socialism”.  Lawrence received two standing ovations from the 1200 people assembled – compare that to light applause mixed with boos for Mayor Battle.

The Police Moderator then announced question time – email questions… WE SHOWED UP and the City doesn’t even have the courtesy to acknowledge that by asking questions from the audience.  There was  a general groan from the audience when he said the first question was about sidewalks, as well as some outbursts from the crowd.  The City can’t duck the HHA issue forever, and putting an armed Policeman out front won’t stop people from voting.   If the City had handled the HHA situation correctly (or implemented a policy based on more than a slogan) they wouldn’t have to hide.

We’d all be sleeping together

“If North Korean missiles hit Huntsville, we’d all be sleeping together”.

I attended the Huntsville City Council meeting tonight, and Councilman Will Culver made a great point – Huntsville comes together.  This was better than TV’s “Parks and Recreation”;  if you haven’t attended local Government meetings you’re missing out on the real fun. Culver made his point that when disaster strikes or when people need help, it doesn’t matter what color you are, your neighbors are there for you.

Here’s a quicklook at the City Council meeting:

No more housing projects in South Huntsville.  Councilwoman Sandra Moon made it clear that the HHA Board had assured her that there will be no more apartment purchases in South Huntsville.  HHA Director Lundy reiterated that point saying “HHA has no intentions of purchasing apartment complexes in Southeast or Southwest Huntsville”.

Section 8 housing is OK.  It seems that a consensus of the City Government, HHA, and concerned citizens believe that vouchers and development (escrow) accounts are an acceptable approach to public housing in Huntsville.

The Medical District housing development is the ‘Gateway Place’ Senior Center, which will be built on the site of Councill Court.

HHA Director Mike Lundy does well in a controlled environment (i.e., Roberts Rules of Order).  He provided some good, detailed information to the public and his heart is in the right place.  As one of the leaders of Stone Manor who is being relocated said: “I feel that Mr. Lundy cares”. I might have some disagreements with him on policies, but I can’t help but feel pride that HHA is a “high-performing organization”.  I think it means that they spend money in a correct and timely manner, maybe someone will explain what it really means…

Mayor Battle proved himself to be an honorable gentleman. The Mayor apologized to Linda Lawrence for his remarks at the Chaffee Public Hearing, saying “I said some things I shouldn’t have said” and “I apologize to you”. Ms. Lawrence accepted his apology.

Councilman Culver said to people complaining about public housing: “keep it to yourself” and “we’re going to handle it”.  He’s new to the Council, but clearly he needs to get used to the idea of free speech.

People are dying trying to cross University Drive.  William Lynch spoke about his grand-daughter getting killed while crossing University.  He proposed a pedestrian crosswalk.

Councilman Richard Showers proposed an Ad Hoc Committee to study a Police Review Board.  He proposed a “diverse group” made up of representatives from the NAACP, other black groups he named but I forgot, Fraternities / Sororities (I don’t think he meant UAH), Public Housing, Existing Community Organizations, and the Homeless.  The Committee would review current police review board models and pick one.

More later… but it seems that the City and the HHA got the message.  IMO their public housing plan was too risky – the chance of failure is too great to risk the future of the City – at least that’s what I hope they think.

On a personal note, I got to meet Challen Stephens of The Huntsville Times. I have a lot of respect for his work, and I link to and quote from his articles often.  His articles on the links between income and test scores in City schools were well-researched and drew rational conclusions.  His recent article on the public housing issue was very good – he ended up validating many of the same points that were made here.

Even better, he says that he’s read Flashpoint.

Mayor Battle Responds

I sent an email to Mayor Tommy Battle today about the Weatherly meeting:

To: Battle,Tommy
Subject: “We really need to talk about this”

I attended the HHA Public Hearing at Chaffee on Monday.  From your statement about needing to talk about this, I thought that you would support Public Hearings in other neighborhoods affected by the HHA efforts to ‘decentralize poverty’.

However, The Huntsville Times reported this:
“Paige Rucker, spokeswoman for the Huntsville Housing Authority, said the agency is exploring a “leadership to leadership” meeting with representatives of the Weatherly-area neighborhood. She said the town meeting at Chaffee proved too volatile to accomplish a meaningful exchange of information.”

 Do you plan to conduct a public hearing at Weatherly with the HHA to discuss the Mahogany Row housing?  Do you believe that the Chaffee hearing was “too volatile”?  Do you believe that the Chaffee hearing provided “a meaningful exchange of information”?

Please note that I supported your campaign for Mayor and voted for you, in part because you campaigned against the secrecy and lack of public communication in the Downtown Rescue Mission move.  I was disappointed in your performance at the Chaffee hearing, but that doesn’t mean you’ve lost my confidence entirely.  I understand that you are doing your best in a difficult job and as a citizen of Huntsville I want to help you better the City.

Mayor Battle promptly replied:

The public hearing Monday night was held by Chaffee Association- I have not heard of Ms Rucker’s meeting. Mike Ball is writing a bill for the legislature that would address some of my issues- it would end the Housing Authorities power of imminent domain, require a local governing body vote of purchases in residential neighborhoods and have a notification clause. This bill would allow public input.

Thanks for the inquiry-
Tommy Battle

Mike Ball?  You been holding out?  For goodness sakes, you’ve got posting rights here :)    I look forward to seeing your proposed legislation, when you’re ready.

Thank you to Mayor Battle for responding.  I agree with this approach and I certainly got more of a response than I asked for.

HHA Afraid to Face Weatherly

From the Huntsville Times “Housing Authority looks at Weatherly for meeting”:

Q. There was a public hearing Monday concerning the new public housing at Stone Manor Apartments at Chaffee Elementary School. I live near Weatherly Elementary School, and our entire neighborhood is concerned about the proposed public housing near our school at Mahogany Row. Is there going to be a similar public hearing for our neighborhood? If so, when and where will this hearing take place?

A. Paige Rucker, spokeswoman for the Huntsville Housing Authority, said the agency is exploring a “leadership to leadership” meeting with representatives of the Weatherly-area neighborhood. She said the town meeting at Chaffee proved too volatile to accomplish a meaningful exchange of information.

Mayor Battle, you said “we really need to talk about this”.  Do you believe that the Chaffee meeting was “too volatile”?  Or do you believe that it represented a meaningful exchange of information?

Face the People!  If the HHA cannot explain its policies in a satisfactory (and open) manner, then the policies should not be implemented.

BTW, I emailed Mayor Battle asking for a response.

Chaffee HHA Hearing Update – Battle

I’ve been posting the updates in chronological order so that readers can get a feel for how the hearing developed.  At this point, Chaffee Neighborhood Association President Lyle Boyles has been moderating the hearing for a couple of hours, residents have heard from Mayor Tommy Battle, HHA Director Michael Lundy, and HPD Sgt. Mark Roberts.  

People are angry at the evasiveness of Lundy.  People don’t believe the Police when they say the projects are safer than Chaffee (Audience member:  “if Councill is so much safer than Chaffee, why endanger the residents by moving them?”).  The cafeteria is getting warm from all the bodies.

Mayor Battle takes the microphone, and Boyles summarizes some emails for Battle: “no confidence in HHA”, “no accountability”, “are major decisions controlled by elected officials”, and “DISSOLVE HHA”.

The “Dissolve HHA” comment brings the crowd to a thunderous standing ovation.

Now it is Battle’s turn to speak, his time to represent the people who elected him, his opportunity to defend a neighborhood from a misguided policy foisted on them by an unaccountable bureaucracy…

“We really need to talk about this”.

“You’re gonna have public housing”.

He then told the crestfallen crowd about his house in Blossomwood that was less than a mile from Councill Court and how the only crime he remembered was car break ins probably committed by neighborhood kids.  He mentioned how his kids went to school at Blossomwood with project children.

He didn’t mention that his Blossomwood mile is across a business district and a creek and a major road from the project, while the Stone Manor apartments are a church away from the Chaffee houses.  He also didn’t mention that at some point his kids started going to Randolph School.

Battle provided some of the history of the HHA, noting that it was “set up in 1941″ and that it was “public not municipal”.

He then took some email questions (again frustrating people who showed up in real life to ask questions).  I’ve paraphrased the questions and answers except for quoted phrases:

Q – Does Alabama’s Sunshine Law (open meetings) apply to HHA? Are meetings publicized?
Battle – meetings are held 3rd Monday of each month at 5PM at 200 Washington Street.
Audience member suggests televising meetings on Huntsville’s Government Access Channel.

Q – The HHA website changed a lot since the issue surfaced (scrubbing), at one point HHA claimed that the projects would rejuvenate the Chaffee area.  What rejuvenation did Chaffee require?
Battle – “Good question” but no answer.

Q – Huntsville Times reported that the City was close to selling Councill Court and relocating residents – how did (Planning Director) Dallas Fanning know but not Battle?
Battle – the Times article was from 2007 when “I wasn’t Mayor”.

Battle then made a speech affirming his support for the HHA plan: “decentralization of public housing”, “idea has been around for about 20 years”, “I knew they were looking”, “in the long run it will be something to be proud of”.

He then related the Lincoln Elementary School success story and asked residents to volunteer at Chaffee.  The audience responded saying “we already volunteer”. 

I noted earlier that Lincoln is only a success because it has about twice as many teachers per student compared to a school like Mountain Gap, plus a large volunteer program.  Does the Mayor / School Superintendent plan to increase the number of teachers at Chaffee to help the project kids?

Next up – Sandra Moon and Mo Brooks…

HHA Public Hearing at Chaffee

I attended the Huntsville Housing Authority Public Hearing Monday night at Chaffee School.

I got there early to get a seat (ended up giving it up), and by 6PM there were 100 people there and the organizers decided to set up a sign in table.  There were about 400 chairs, and by the time the meeting started at 6:30PM it was standing room only with an overflow outside.  I counted over 600 people in the room, with more outside who couldn’t get in.  The meeting lasted until after 10PM.

Fox 54 and WAFF 48 covered the hearing.

Mayor Tommy Battle, Council member Sandra Moon, Council member Will Culver, Council member Richard Showers, County Commissioner Mo Brooks, and State Representative Mike Ball were there, as well as State Senate 7 candidates Sam Givhan and Paul Sanford.

HHA Director Mike Lundy and HHA Board Member Charlie Burress, Assistant Mayor Rex Reynolds, Police Chief Henry Reyes, Police Community Officer Roberts, and MultiCultural Affairs Director Brenda Martin represented the City and HHA.  There were also two uniformed policemen there.

Chaffee Civic Association official Lyle Boyles introduced Mayor Battle and Director Lundy – no applause.  It was about to get worse for these two.

My quick look is that Mayor Battle performed poorly, to the point of insulting a constituent.  I was very disappointed by this, as I supported and voted for Mayor Battle.  He tried to be diplomatic and understanding at times, but I don’t think he was ready for the controversy.  We’ll see if he responds to the citizenry and reverses course, or if he continues – IMO this could break Battle. Quotes: “change is a scary thing” and “I’m committed to making the neighborhood whole”.

Almost to shame the crowd (my impression)  into using their energy to help his program instead of protest, Battle mentioned Lincoln School as a success story due to volunteers (which in a way it is).  What he didn’t mention is that Lincoln has a 10 to 1 student – teacher ratio along with lots of volunteers but scores about 40 on the SATs (better than the 20s that could otherwise be expected).  By comparison, Mountain Gap has an 18 to 1 student – teacher ratio and scores about 75 on the SAT.

Director Lundy was just as frustrating in person as he was in the newspaper. He wouldn’t give a straight answer to many questions and on others his answers were: “I didn’t need to consult anybody” and “I’ll answer it the way I want to answer it”. When failures in other cities were brought up, he dismissed them by saying ”we’re talking about Huntsville”.  This became comic when he started to talk about other cities as examples.

Council Member Sandra Moon received a standing ovation when she called for the Mayor to ask for the resignations of the HHA Board Members.  “This is not community building, it is community destruction”.

County Commissioner Mo Brooks received a standing ovation when he said that “every piece of property can be disowned”, calling for the Mayor to reverse the HHA acquisitions, because of the “detrimental effect on the only part of Huntsville that has survived”.

One other standing ovation came from an email demanding that the HHA “be dissolved”.

Dozens of people spoke against the HHA plan, including the inimitable Jackie Reed, who asked for Director Lundy’s resignation. “I don’t want to live in Atlanta” – her comment on downtown redevelopment.

Gentleman noting that Mayor Battle “campaigned against secrecy” in the Rescue Mission move.

Gentleman speaking on social engineering schemes that have failed for 40 years – “we don’t buy it anymore”.

I’ve got notes from most of the speakers.  Bottom line – people are scared and angered by their local Government in the three areas that matter most: homes, schools, and safety.

Linda Lawrence read from this article in the Atlantic “American Murder Mystery”, which illustrates how crime follows public housing.

…a nationwide experiment to free the poor from the destructive effects of concentrated poverty. Memphis demolished its first project in 1997. The city gave former residents federal “Section8” rent-subsidy vouchers and encouraged them to move out to new neighborhoods. Two more waves of demolition followed over the next nine years, dispersing tens of thousands of poor people into the wider metro community…  “Crime is going along with them.”

Much more later.