Northeast Birmingham Zoning Delayed After Discussion of Conservation Easements

Protracted discussion over proposed zoning changes to northeast Birmingham led to a two-week delay in the Birmingham City Council considering them during its meeting Tuesday.

These proposed changes would affect the East Pinson Valley, Huffman, Cahaba and Roebuck/South East Lake communities as part of the Northeast Framework Plan. Many of the proposed changes were “name-only,” said Tim Gambrel, a city planner, who added that the plans were a result of months of vetting by various government officials.

The discussion was open to the public, and some attendees spoke up to criticize the measure, arguing that some of the proposed rezoning could negatively impact the Cahaba watershed.

One speaker, who gave her name as Bobbie Rhodes, cited a 2001 settlement agreement between then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor and the Birmingham Water Works Board, as well as an acquisition agreement between the water board and the city of Birmingham, which would require watershed properties to be placed in conservation easements.

“There is nothing in this city that is more important to us than preserving the quality of our water,” Rhodes said.

Peggy Gargis, board president for the Cahaba Riverkeeper, also addressed the council. “We can’t see how this Cahaba community can remain a part of the Northeast Framework Plan, because those watershed lands are a very different animal,” she said. The Northeast Framework Plan, she said, revealed that the conservation easements ordered by Pryor had never been filed by the city. Any plans to zone watershed property, Gargis said, would have to wait until after those conservation easements, which would permanently protect that land from development, were filed.

Mac Underwood, general manager of the Birmingham Water Works Board, said that the board has not asked for any zoning changes to BWWB properties, and that the board is “compliant” and “committed to the conservation easements.”

Gambrell said that the opponent’s plans were “the same as ours, to protect the watershed,” and that the city was in the early stages of a plan to develop a “conservation district” to protect the land. In the meantime, the proposed zoning change would work as a placeholder. Part of that change would designate part of the Cahaba community as a “Holding Zone District,” which he said was the strictest zoning designation.

Before the motion was delayed for two weeks, a few councilors spoke out on the measure. Councilor Lashunda Scales said parties with complaints should have participated more in the Northeast Framework Plan’s planning process. Councilor Valerie Abbott, meanwhile, said that she was “5,000 percent against development,” saying that many developers are motivated more by greed than by responsibility to conservation. The item will be revisited during the Sept. 19 council meeting.

Also delayed was a proposed ordinance that would appropriate $40 million of the city’s capital fund budget to the Birmingham Bus Rapid Transit Project. Budget negotiations between the mayor and council are ongoing.

Other Business

Another major subject of discussion was the Five Points South nightclub SKKY Club (formerly Bacchus), which has been the site of several instances of violence in recent months. The Five Points South Neighborhood Association vice president spoke before the council and Mayor William Bell, asking for SKKY’s business license to be revoked. Bell said he would look into his power to do so by executive order.

The council also approved travel expenses for Joi Coke, an administrative assistant to the mayor; she spent $493.82 to attend a “meeting with federal officials regarding grant opportunities” in Atlanta. The council also approved two advance travel expenditures: $678.71 for Councilor Kim Rafferty to attend “certified municipal official program training” in Loxley; and $1,625.99 for Tanilya Jackson, a communications officer in the mayor’s office, to attend the “Opportunity at Work TechHire Roundtable Close It Summit” in Chicago.