Two small residential properties in Birmingham’s Druid Hills neighborhood took on much larger significance during Tuesday’s City Council meeting, as a chaotic debate over whether they should be rezoned to accommodate their owners’ legal practice ballooned into a discussion of the economic future of Birmingham’s black neighborhoods.
The properties in question, located at 1301 and 1303 20th St. N., are owned by Wayman Newton, an attorney who said he inherited them from his grandmother, who died in 2013. Newton’s request to rezone the properties from single-family residential to mixed-use low district would have allowed him to renovate the house and turn it into an office for his legal practice. Newton had promised he would keep the “residential character” of the house intact, but that hadn’t been enough for the Druid Hills Neighborhood Association, the Zoning Advisory Committee or the council’s planning and zoning committee, all of which had voted not to recommend granting the rezoning request.
Their objections largely centered on the issue of “spot zoning,” which is the practice of zoning one parcel of land differently from all the other properties around it. The majority of Druid Hills is zoned for single-family residences, and opponents of the rezoning request argued that it could permanently change the character of the neighborhood.
“When you change zoning … it has implications long beyond what you do immediately,” said District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt, the chair of the council’s planning and zoning committee. “I don’t believe in spot zoning, and the reason I don’t is because spot zoning in my neighborhood (has caused) mayhem. In the middle of the neighborhood we have a service station that could blow up every house in the community. But somebody allowed it to happen.”
Hoyt’s two fellow planning and zoning committee members, Council President Valerie Abbott and District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, both shared his skepticism.
“Generally speaking, one commercial rezoning begets another,” Abbott said. “I don’t think every single house in the neighborhood will go commercial, but it does open the door for it to happen more often.”
O’Quinn, whose district includes part of Druid Hills, said his opposition to the rezoning did not have to do with Newton specifically, but the possibility that the rezoning would allow the property to become more explicitly commercial in the distant future.
“This is about determining what this property will be in perpetuity,” he said. “Having spent quite a lot of time in Druid Hills speaking with residents, it’s my feeling that they do not at any point in the future want to see a commercial structure or commercial use on this property.” Rezoning, he argued, would make that a possibility if Newton ever decided to sell the property.
The solution, they argued, would be “Q conditions,” which are further restrictions on a property beyond initial zoning ordinances, to ensure that the property would only be used as an office and could not be torn down and replaced with, for instance, a convenience store.
“If placing a Q condition (on the property) would protect the neighborhood from any other use, … I would vote yes,” Druid Hills Neighborhood Association President Amie Evans told the council in a letter that was read aloud at Tuesday’s meeting. “We are leaving this matter in the hands of the city council to protect our neighborhood.”
But the implementation of Q conditions would have required that the item be delayed and re-advertised to the public, something for which Newton said he was unwilling to wait.
Proponents of the rezoning — particularly District 9 Councilor John Hilliard, who was the most vocal supporter — argued that Q conditions were unnecessary or could happen later. “I want to vote (now),” he said to Hoyt. “You can get it straight later.”
Hilliard’s argument for the rezoning centered on providing more autonomy to neighborhoods. He evoked the neighboring town of Mt. Laurel — an example he has used before — as a place that has benefitted from the type of multi-use zoning Newton was requesting.
“Most people don’t even drive around in Mt. Laurel,” he said. “They walk to the neighborhood restaurant, the bar, the dentist’s office, the doctor’s office. At what point in time are we going to consider that we deserve that same type of thing in Birmingham? When do we get to that point? … You’ve got a guy who wants to put his law office in an area, and we’re giving him hell to try and get it done. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Council President Pro Tem Jay Roberson appeared moved by the idea that multi-use zoning could have such an impact on Birmingham neighborhoods.
“I believe that your appeal to this council today will change (how) we look at zoning in the city of Birmingham,” he told Newton. “Attorney Newton, a brother that looks like me, that wants to make a difference in his community, says a lot … . If I had 100, 500, 1,000 attorney Newtons to come back into their home community and invest back into their home that their (families) left for them, Birmingham would be a new place.”
Roberson added that he would consider a similar strategy for his ailing father’s Collegeville home.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin urged that the council pass the item immediately, adding that Q conditions could be added later.
“There are some exceptions to all of our rules, and I think this does the Druid Hills neighborhood a good service,” he said. “When I hear what the residents (of Druid Hills) are excited about, it’s just not some small business owner coming in and saying he wants to change the neighborhood. I think he wants to support their interests and bring value to the neighborhood.”
Hoyt, Abbott and O’Quinn remained skeptical, prompting Woodfin to privately confer with Newton, who told the council publicly that he would be willing to meet and discuss Q conditions, provided that the rezoning was approved. “I do not want this vote delayed,” he said.
What followed was several minutes of chaos, as some councilors attempted to understand the agreement between Woodfin and Newton, while other councilors — Hilliard, again, was the most vocal — pushed for the end of discussion and immediate passage. Hilliard warned Newton that if Councilor Sheila Tyson left before the vote, since she had planned to leave early, “It may never happen.”
“You better get this vote!” he shouted to Newton.
The confusion only grew deeper when Newton suddenly announced that he was breaking from his agreement with Woodfin. “I retract my Q conditions,” he said. “I want a vote.”
Attempting to mediate, Councilor William Parker asked Woodfin if, after the initial passage of the rezoning, Q conditions could be added later.
“If Mr. Newton is willing,” Woodfin said, warily glancing toward Newton.
“I’m not willing,” Newton replied.
A motion presented by Hilliard and seconded by Roberson cut discussion of the matter off abruptly, and it went to a vote. It passed on a vote of 6-3, with Hilliard, Parker, Roberson, Tyson, District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales and District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams all voting in favor of the rezoning.
Hoyt, Abbott, and O’Quinn — the only three members of the council’s planning and zoning committee — voted no.
“That was probably the worst council meeting I’ve ever sat through,” Abbott, who has been on the council since 2001, said after the meeting. “It was just a mess.”
This story has been corrected to say Abbott has been on the council since 2001.