Lengthy debate leads to property rezoning in Druid Hills
Following a nearly two-hour debate, the Birmingham City Council approved a rezoning item allowing for a historic residential structure in Druid Hills to be used as a law office.
The ordinance, which drew sharp lines between the councilors supporting the item and those against what they referred to as “spot zoning,” will change the zoning from R-3, Single Family District, to MU-L Mixed-Use Low.
The three councilors who voted not to approve the ordinance spoke in support of what attorney Wayman Newtown was doing to improve the neighborhood. However, they had concerns about the long-term consequences that could possibly open the door for additional commercial rezoning in the neighborhood and what the future use of the Newtown’s property might be should he decide to sell.
The item reads as follows:
“I inherited this property from my grandmother,” Newton said. “The house next door was vacant and some homeless people set the house on fire. Here is a property my family owned for 50 years but we couldn’t get insurance because of the dilapidated structure next door… I decided to bring a law office to the property because it was hard to get someone to rent out the property. My grandfather was one of the first black people to purchase a home in Druid Hills. It’s my sincere desire to improve and add to my neighborhood.” Newton’s appeal to the council appeared to change some minds on the dais.
“I believe today your appeal to the council will change the way we look at zoning in Birmingham,” Council President Pro Tem Jay Roberson said. “You shared your lineage and the history your family has in this community and it has changed my opinion. If we had 1,000 attorney Newtons who wanted to come back to their community and invest like this, Birmingham would be a new place. A brother that looks like me, that wants to make a difference, it says a lot. I’ve seen elite neighborhoods for black folks move down in Birmingham. And now people are starting to coming back and invest. I commend you. I don’t believe in spot zoning, but this has a different aura about it.”
Councilor Steven Hoyt, who chairs the Planning and Zoning Committee which voted to not recommend the item following the findings of the Planning, Engineering and Permits Department, said that spot zoning can lead to “zoning mayhem” as it has in his district.
“When you change zoning — and this is spot zoning — it has implications long beyond,” Hoyt said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with you as a person. I’d love to see you in the courtroom. For me, I don’t believe in spot zoning. As a result of spot zoning, we have mayhem in my district. In the middle of the neighborhood we have a service station. Property values have gone down. We have every iteration of zoning over there. I’m excited you want to be there and do something in your community, but I try not to be emotionally driven when it comes to zoning.”
Councilor John Hilliard, perhaps the most vocal proponent for passing the ordinance on Tuesday, spoke several times, drawing applause from those seated in the packed chamber.
“You’re talking about spending money in your community,” Hilliard said to Newton. “Why is every other community springing up around us with new developments? At what point in time are we going to start considering that we deserve that same type of thing in Birmingham? Here it is a guy who wants to put his law office in an area that needs help and we’re giving him hell. I usually agree with neighborhoods, but everything this man is saying is true and he wants to build his neighborhood up.”
The Druid Hills Neighborhood Association voted to not recommend the rezoning to the Council. The majority of the people who spoke during the public hearing were in favor of the rezoning, but many did not live in the neighborhood.
“Understand exactly what he’s doing,” Gwendolyn Cook Webb said during the public hearing. “We say we want to help minorities and you have a man here who is wanting to help others in the neighborhood. He’s not asking for a hand out. He needs a hand up to help the community.”
Mayor Randall Woodfin spoke in favor of the Council passing the ordinance on Tuesday and his office would work with Newton to establish cue conditions, preventing the item from having to come back before the Council in five weeks, as protocol would require.
“Mr. Newton gave me a tour of the entire block where you see a massive amount of empty lots,” Woodfin said. “For all the issues in our 99 neighborhoods, there are exceptions to our rules. This does Druid Hills a good service. My concern in delaying this for the cue conditions is that we can get lost in what we are trying to do. Listening to everyone today, the emphasis has not been on the house but on the legacy and character of neighborhood. I don’t think he wants to change that. If this can be passed today we can have conversations about concerns.”
As the discussion wore on however, Newton said he would be rescinding his initial offer to accept cue conditions that would ensure the rezoned property would not be used for anything besides a law office in the future. “I want my vote,” Newton said repeatedly.
Eventually the council approved the ordinance with a 5–3 vote.