Questions About Protection of the Drinking Water Supply Dominate Debate On Northeast Birmingham Zoning Plan

Sep. 19, 2017 — After some public debate, the Birmingham City Council approved Tuesday a measure to change zoning district lines in parts of northeast Birmingham.

The proposal stemmed from the Northeast Framework Plan, which encompasses the East Pinson Valley, Huffman, Cahaba and Roebuck/South East Lake Communities.

The measure was criticized when it first appeared before the council Sept. 5. Most of that criticism centered on the Cahaba watershed, with opponents of the ordinance expressing worries that the proposed rezoning would negatively affect what serves as a major source of drinking water for many surrounding communities.

Much of the debate centered on a 2001 settlement agreement between then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor and the Birmingham Water Works Board. The agreement required watershed properties to be placed under conservations easements that would permanently prevent development. But the agreement was not fulfilled for 16 years, leaving those properties legally vulnerable to development despite the insistence of the Water Works Board members and city planners that they remained committed to the protection of those lands.

That debate continued during Tuesday’s meeting. Cahaba Riverkeeper board President Peggy Gargis returned to speak against the ordinance, expressing her belief that the properties in question — around Lake Purdy and portions of the Cahaba River —  should be left out of the rezoning plan completely. She said they were “apples and oranges” compared to the other properties in the framework plan.

“While one needs economic development, the other needs protection from economic development,” she said.

The framework plan as written would change the zoning on those areas from estate zoning, which allows single-family residences and noncommercial facilities, to a holding district. The intent of a holding district is to keep land substantially undeveloped, usually while a land use plan is being developed.

City planner Tim Gambrell assured the council that the conservation easements ordered by the attorney general would be filed. Water Works General Manager Mac Underwood said in a letter to Mayor William Bell that the easements were being finished and would be completed in 30 to 45 days.

Councilor Steven Hoyt said he believed the concerns expressed by Gargis and others had been adequately addressed by the plan.

Councilors Lashunda Scales and Jay Roberson argued that many of the issues raised by Gargis and other opponents would be better addressed to the BWWB. Scales pointed out that the board had been out from the city’s control since it became an independent entity in 2001. “We’re talking about an issue that we no longer own,” she said.

The council then voted to approve the ordinance 6 to 1, with District 2 Councilor Kim Rafferty as the sole dissenting vote. The plan “disenfranchised quite a few areas in the study,” she said after the meeting. “The Cahaba watershed issue was not taken seriously,” she added, calling the zoning department and some of her fellow councilors “quite rude, dismissive and abrasive to concerned residents.”

She also added that the ordinance would be “in direct conflict with the primary zoning” that would apply if the conservation easements were approved and filed.

Susan Burgess, a concerned citizen who spoke against the ordinance, said after the meeting that she had been opposed to the ordinance because she didn’t trust that the conservation easements would ever be filed, given the 16-year delay. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said. In the meantime, she worried that the ordinance, as it stood, would leave the land vulnerable to development, which could cause long-lasting damage to the watershed.

“I’m just dismayed they can’t put something permanent in place,” she said.

Southwest Framework Plan

Passing with much less controversy was a similar zoning ordinance for the Southwest Framework Plan, which included the Brownville, Grasselli and Southwest Communities. The ordinance largely changed neighborhood business districts in those communities to single-family districts.

No one spoke against the measures and the item was quickly approved.

The council also voted Tuesday to approve advance travel expenses for two city employees to attend the annual legislative conference of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C. Councilor Marcus Lundy’s trip was anticipated to cost $2,0796.76, while council multimedia specialist Desmond Wilson’s trip would cost an expected $2,410.70.