by Walker County News Today staff
In an emotionally charged, publicly protested move, the Huntsville City Council voted 6-1 last Tuesday night to allow commercial development in a portion of a neighborhood previously protected from such development.
The vote was the latest setback in a two-year fight by members of the neighborhood and others from the public to prevent outside developers from being allowed to come into the neighborhood to tear down existing homes, trees and landscape only to replace them with “yet more ugly fast food joints.”
Residents of the area bordering 11th Street and Normal Park also feared that the move would cause an already bad traffic situation to get worse, increasing noise, trash and light pollution and threaten the lives of residents and visitors, including children.
The only arguments offered in favor of the rezoning was that it would allow certain property owners to profit from the move or would otherwise be “in the best interests of the City.” What those “best interests” were considered to be was not identified.
Councilman Ronald Allen opened the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting to explain his dissenting vote: “I just want to say, and I’ve given this a lot of thought, – – – that I had to say to myself, ‘Would I want commercial development in my neighborhood, next to my home, and next to the homes of my neighbors?’
And the answer is that I would not. I would not.
And I have a lot of faults, but one that I don’t have is I’m not two faced. So, if I don’t want it in my neighborhood, next to my home or my neighbor’s home, then how on God’s Green Earth could I vote to put commercial development in somebody else’s neighborhood, next to their homes. I cannot do it.”
None of the other councilmembers attempted to defend their votes from at least the implied charge that it was “two-faced.” Two even admitted that if the neighborhood involved was their own, they “would probably be on the other side.”
Indeed, such an attempted defense would have been difficult, considering that just three months earlier this same council voted unanimously, but in the opposite way in the case of the Brookview Subdivision near the intersection of IH-45 and Highway 75 North. Brookview had already been classified as commercial and is vulnerable to or experiencing commercial development on at least three sides.
But the Brookview Homeowner’s Association, who also happened to be headed by a member of the City’s Planning Commission, petitioned for the protection of their neighborhood using the same arguments as the G.A. White residents used in this case. In that case, the Council enthusiastically embraced those arguments, proclaiming that “we must protect our neighborhoods.” Yet on Tuesday night councilmembers reversed themselves to say just the opposite in the case of G. A. White neighborhood.
By coincidence, the Planning Commission came under public criticism during its first attempt two years ago to rezone the G. A. White subdivision. In that case one of the three developers who petitioned for the rezoning happened to also be the Chairman of the Planning Commission. The Chairman filed an affidavit of Conflict of Interest and recused himself from the vote as required by State Law, but the coincidence did not go unnoticed by the public.
At Tuesday’s meeting, six members of the public spoke in opposition to the proposed rezoning and three, all of whom may expect to profit from the change, spoke in favor.
The first speaker opposed to the change, Michael Huff, asked the Council if anyone knew what the commercial developments would be as a consequence of their rezoning decision. No one did, so Mr. Huff asked how anyone on the Council could assure any of the residents that their quality of life or the value of their homes wouldn’t be affected. No one on Council could make that assurance.
Mr. Huff then complimented Councilmember Allen on his remarks and, following the two-faced analogy, challenged the Council to “put your face on these people that live there.” Apparently, only Councilmember Allen was willing to do that.
Scott Hornung called the Council’s attention to what he found to be weaknesses in the Development Code when it came to protecting residents. He also expressed concern about the Planning Commission members, upon whom the Council depends for recommendations. “I’m not sure that they’ve actually read the development code and understand what it includes and doesn’t.”
Mr. Hornung recommended that the rezoning issue be tabled until those questions could be resolved.
Former councilmember Dalene Zender reiterated her opposition to the proposed rezoning, noting that “almost anything could go in directly across the street because being in a Management District there’s not a lot of regulations on what it could be.”
Steve Covington spoke saying that he appreciated Councilmember Allen’s remarks earlier. He also supported Scott Hornung’s comments, saying that he personally had completely lost faith in the development code. “We need to fight this, not only because of G. A. White, but really for Huntsville in general, because we are destroying neighborhoods and the beauty of this city.”
Timothy Davis noted that there is a lot of new development going on but asked, “Where are the new homes being built? If we start to rezone things to management, we take away old residential and I do not see a comparable rate of new ones being built. We need to protect the people who live here now.”
Sarah Hollis Murray added: “I travel I-45 a lot between Galveston and Dallas and on further north and one thing I’ve noticed is that intersections, portals to cities, are like a revolving door – convenience stores, fast food restaurants; it’s all the same. There’s no uniqueness. And I would like to suggest that there are other options. You might want to consider a park, a buffer zone for the Forest Hills area, something of beauty. And beauty is significant. People do not visit communities to sit in fast food parking lots. They visit communities because of the uniqueness and the beauty and the communities that are the most celebrated and well known in this country are the ones that have done just that. That’s going to benefit the community more than any business or fast food restaurant. I guarantee it.”
Ms. Murray went on to say “Despite what the developers are telling you, this is a portal to our city, the main portal. And what you see on one side is common, on the other is beauty. We’re thinking A or B. I would like to suggest that there’s a C or D. There are other options to look at for that area that would benefit the City in terms of increasing tourism and making people want to stop and want to enjoy Huntsville.”
Three speakers spoke in favor of the rezoning. Jimmy D Henry noted that he owned several of the properties including rent houses and that he had been contacted 90 days or so ago about selling them. He recounted some of the history of his properties. According to the information provided to the Council for the meeting, Mr. Henry stated in a Planning Commission public hearing that he wanted to be able to legally sell his properties as commercial.
Mr. Henry was asked by Councilmember Rodriquez what would happen to his renters if he sold the property. Mr. Henry replied, “They’ll have to move. I have no idea what the development is. When somebody comes and says ‘I’m with such and such and we’re a developer out of Houston and we’d like to purchase your property, I said I don’t know if I can really sell it or not”
Micah Slaughter, owner of a lot in the area in question asked the Council what their vision for Huntsville is and said that he believes that the block lends itself more to commercial development than residential.
Kelsey Christian, who owns two lots in the area said “I understand that we’re intruding on their homes and things, but what we’re asking is this to be zoned as management so that, in the event we are approached we can do what’s in our best interest.
After the public comments, only three of the six councilmembers voting to rezone explained their rationale. The three that did essentially defaulted to “the best interest of Huntsville” argument without elaborating on why they thought their vote was in fact in the best interest of the City.