Monday, August 27, 2007

High Tech and Personal Touch at new Fire Station 2

The new Fire Station #2 on Patton Chapel Road was unveiled for citizens at an open house Sunday afternoon. The station had to be relocated as part of re-configuring the intersection with Chapel Lane, a process that took several years but appears to have been worth the wait.

It is larger than the old station, with enough storage space that the HazMat Team (response team for Hazardous Materials accidents) will operate from here, as Mayor Tony Petelos said in his remarks. There is one more vehicle bay, and all the bays are larger. A state-of-the art classroom is located upstairs, where Open House attendees could see a presentation on the construction of the building. (If you drove by during construction, it was hard to see, because the new station is tucked away. But most everyone noticed when the old station was demolished - it was there in the morning, and gone by afternoon!)

Most interesting for me, as a resident of Hoover, was the computer technology that gives firefighters all the information they need at their fingertips when they respond to a call. All Hoover Fire Department units are equipped with Toughbook computers linked to a central database. Fire Station 2 and Fire Station 4 (Municipal Drive) are testing an on-site system as well.

Lt. Tommy Sizemore demonstrated the on-site computer, which has a large flat screen monitor on the wall and a telex machine. On the display at the open house was a list of all the Hoover units and where they were (this is information transmitted from the on-board laptops). There was a map that showed every fire hydrant in Hoover, which can be zoomed in when there is a call. Lt. Sizemore said the computer can overlay satellite images, most of which are only a few months old, which show the “lay of the land” for firefighters. This is especially useful in areas where there is a lot of new construction.

The department also keeps information from individual citizens, such as handicapped or elderly residents. Lt. Sizemore said the department encourages people to call their local station with emergency information, so the firefighters will have it when they respond to a call.

The telex machine prints out all the dispatch information for the units to take with them. One of the advantages of this system is privacy, Lt. Sizemore said. “Before, we had to transmit over the radio, which can be picked up by other people. When we use printouts, we know that information about individual residents stays secure.”

Architecturally, the building looks like many new homes in Hoover: brick and stone with arched windows and a peaked roof. It was designed by Duncan & Nequette Architects to fit in with the neighborhood while being highly functional, and it appears to have accomplished that goal.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

P&Z denial of worship center contradicts previous actions on church requests

Hoover’s Planning and Zoning Commission has voted against an application to put a Muslim worship center on property at the corner of Sulphur Springs Rd. and Al Seier Rd.

The Council Chambers were filled to capacity for the Aug. 13 meeting, with about 75 additional people crowding the lobby. Although discussion of religion was quashed during the public hearing, it was still the topic on everyone’s mind. One attendee (who was not against the center) said that people had been going door-to-door in the community with petitions opposing the center; the person who came to her house had no qualms about saying he was against it because it was Muslim.

Traffic was the main spoken concern of opponents. As shown in a previous post, a retail center, which could be built without any neighborhood input, would generate at least twice the traffic of the worship center, and at all hours of the day including rush hours. Click here for details.

Opponents also talked about lack of sales tax revenue if the property has a church on it. (The proposal is for a building that would be leased to the church, so property tax would be paid.)

Former City Council president Bob Austin, in a newspaper column July 25, said “the city could lose... sales taxes that would be collected from a business if the property were developed under its current C-1 zoning.”

Among the uses permitted by right in a C-1 zone, office, technical and day-care nurseries do not generate sales taxes. The undeveloped property for which the worship center application was made is not generating any revenue at present, although it has been available, with a commercial zoning, for seven years and possibly longer.

When Mr. Austin was on the Hoover City Council, he consistently voted in favor of church uses on commercially zoned property. I reviewed minutes from 2000 through 2007 to obtain this information:
  • April 5, 2004: Conditional use to allow church at 2970 Lorna Rd., property zone C-2 (Community Business District). Mr. Austin chaired the Council public hearing; the item passed unanimously.
  • March 18, 2002: Conditional Use for a church (new development) off Lake Crest Dr., Presbyterian Church of the Hills, Zoned PC (Planned Commercial). The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended it, there was no opposition and no conditions. Mr. Austin chaired the Council public hearing; the item passed unanimously.
  • Aug. 6, 2001: Conditional Use for Church of the Harvest to meet at 2321 John Hawkins Parkway, Lake Crest Center (zoning not specified, but assumed to be a C zone). Mr. Austin chaired the public hearing and the motion passed unanimously.
Although some of these votes were on applications to use a space within a larger shopping center, there would still be no sales tax revenues generated for that particular space if a church was meeting there.

The Birmingham News article about the P&Z meeting indicates that Commissioner Mike Natter, who is a City Council member, was concerned about loss of sales tax revenue. However, Mr. Natter also voted consistently in favor of church uses of commercially zoned property:
  • Jan. 17, 2006: conditional use to allow Emmanuel Church, 2467 John Hawkins Parkway, Ste. 701 Sulphur Springs Marketplace, zoned C-2. Mr. Natter moved to approve, and it passed unanimously.
  • Dec. 6, 2004: conditional use to allow church, 759 Valley St., zoned C-2 Community Business District. This property was previously used as an office building and was being converted to a church. Mr. Natter moved to approve it, subject to some conditions involving city codes, and it passed unanimously. He is not on record as objecting to a change from commercial to church use. He also reported at the May 15, 2006 Council meeting about his attendance at the church dedication and “that Hoover should be very proud of this facility.”
  • Nov. 15, 2004: conditional use to allow a school (7th Day Adventist) at 3500 Old Rocky Ridge Rd., zoned C-1 (Neighborhood Shopping District). Mr. Natter moved to approve it, subject to traffic flow and an approved site development plan, and it passed unanimously.
Mr. Natter voted in favor of amending the city’s zoning ordinance to allow churches and schools as conditional uses in C-1, C-2, C-3 and I-1 districts. It was a unanimous vote. Mr. Natter is not on record as objecting to the potential loss of sales tax revenue from such uses of commercially zoned property. (Feb. 6, 2006)

Mr. Natter did vote in favor of a conditional use for a mosque on Hackberry Lane, which was an existing church building on R-1 property. During the public hearing, he spoke eloquently of the need for religious tolerance, as did several other Council members. That conditional use passed unanimously. (May 15, 2006)

It should be noted that a legislative body like the City Council can take politics and community opinion into account when it makes planning and zoning decisions. However, if a decision is inconsistent with decisions made in similar circumstances, then it could be considered arbitrary and capricious, which is not allowed.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Unincorporated Industrial Site on Highway 150 surrounded by Hoover, could have big impact

A vestige of west Jefferson’s mining past, about four acres on Highway 150 were recently advertised for sale as industrially-zoned property. (The property is actually zoned I-3, rather than M - 3 as the sign states.) It is an island of unincorporated Jefferson County within Hoover, located at the corner of Scenic View Trace and Highway 150, across from Hoover Toyota and next to condominiums, offices and a cemetery. Click here for Google Maps and aerial photo.

According to the Jefferson County Zoning Ordinance, most commercial and industrial uses, as well as timbering and mining, are permitted on I-3 property. (You can obtain a PDF version of the zoning ordinance here.)

This zone allows C-1 uses, which include:
  • service stations
  • mini-warehouses
  • motels
  • shopping centers
  • other retail uses.
A conditional use would allow fireworks sales.

I-3 also allows any uses in the I-1 Light Industrial Zone, which include
  • manufacturing
  • heavy equipment sales
  • truck terminals
  • lumberyards.
This zone does not permit excessive noise or dust, storage of explosives, or outside storage. (But higher industrial zones do.)

I-3 also allows any use permitted in an I-2 Heavy Industrial District. These permitted uses include
  • cement plants
  • iron and steel mills
  • sawmills
  • other heavy industrial manufacturing uses

The I-3 Industrial District allows, in addition to the above uses,
  • subsurface and underground mining
  • logging
  • construction of any necessary transportation or other facilities
  • dumping of spoil and tailings
Jefferson County zoning maps from 1948 show the entire north half of the section zoned I-3. It was originally owned by U.S. Steel Corporation, and was sold minus mineral rights in December 1972 to an individual. Over the years, it was re-sold to various individuals and groups, who sold off portions of the property. The remaining parcel was last sold in 1979 to the current owner.

Editor’s Note: I have not yet called the real estate agent to ask about the sale of this property, but when I do I will do a followup story.

It is important to note that this parcel is not in Hoover, and so whatever would go on the property is regulated by the Jefferson County Commission. None of Hoovers’ zoning, landscaping, sign or other regulations would be applicable.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Church or Strip Mall? Sulphur Springs residents face a choice

An Ismaili Muslim congregation that currently meets in Riverchase has applied for a conditional use to build a worship center at the corner of Sulphur Springs Road and Al Seir Road. This property is about four acres and is zoned C-1, which is a neighborhood business district. The Planning Committee is scheduled to consider the application on Aug. 13.

(This property has been zoned for commercial use for quite some time. When we moved to Hoover in 2000 we looked at all the zoning in the community and it was C-1 then.)

Many of the permitted uses (for example, a doctor’s office) could increase traffic at traditional rush hours. Others (laundromat) could operate around the clock. Still others (bank) could attract customers from some distance away. All of these uses are allowed without any special permission or opportunity for neighborhood input.

According to the Hoover Zoning Ordinance, these uses are specifically permitted on this property:
  • Office and technical uses. If floor area is larger than 5,000 square feet, then 15 percent can be used for retail uses except restaurants, if the retail is primarily for the office tenants, visitors or patients. (This is actually part of the C-P zoning which is included in C-1 by reference.)
  • Barber and Beauty Shops, Banks, Convenience Stores, Drug Stores, Dry Cleaning Outlets, Coin-operated laundromats, Day-care nurseries, grocery stores, catering restaurants, food service restaurants, other neighborhood service facilities.
  • Conditional uses which must be approved by the City Council: Churches, schools, clinics, nursing homes, mortuaries, independent living facilities, assisted living facilities, shopping centers, veterinary clinic (no outside kennels), off-premise beer and wine.
  • Prohibited uses: manufacturing, on-premise sale of alcoholic beverages, on- or off-premise sale of liquor, live entertainment.
Any use has to meet the city’s parking requirements, and there is also a 25 foot buffer required if the property is next to a residential area. There are no requirements in the zoning ordinance for hours of operation, but there are requirements limiting outside lighting next to a residential zone. The ordinance has regulations for off-street parking and loading, but there is no specified requirement to address traffic on public streets.

As far as traffic is concerned, let’s do some math:

This property is 4.7 acres, which is 204,732 square feet. Under C-1 zoning, a shopping center (which does require a conditional use approval) on a parcel this size can have a maximum floor area of 25 percent of the property, which in this case is 51,183. The maximum size per store is 4,500 square feet, which means theoretically you could have 11 stores.

According to the Institute of Transportation Engineers, you can estimate Average Daily Trips by multiplying 42.92 per 1,000 square feet of floor area. An 11-store shopping center, which is not unrealistic on nearly five acres, would generate around 2,146 trips per day.

The Ismaili worship center is estimated to produce at its peak attendance time, once per week, at most 1,000 trips (this is assuming attendance of 500, with one trip into the parking lot and one out. Of course, there will probably be more than one person per car, which reduces the number of trips.) This was part of the information conveyed at a community meeting hosted by the congregation at Prince of Peace Catholic Church on July 31.

Previously in the neighborhood...
In the community discussion of the Ismaili congregation's proposal, several commenters have noted that a commercial development would bring in tax revenue and might be preferable to a church. However, in 1999 and 2000, when the City Council was dealing with plans for The Preserve, one of the sticking points with the neighborhood was the proposal for a community business district.

Aug. 29, 2000, Panel Approves Preserve Plans. “USX drew opposition from hundreds of nearby residents last year when it sought to rezone land...but most residents calmed down after the company agreed to remove a community business district from the center of the subdivision....”

Sept. 21, 1999, USX Alters Preserve Plan. “More than 100 people attended Hoover’s Monday night council meeting.... Many residents have vigorously opposed the commercial village planned by USX....”

Aug. 13, 1999, Zoning Officials Won’t Back USX Plan for Hoover Preserve. “Neighbors aren’t fighting residential development as much as the retail office space USX wants to put in the middle of it, [one resident] said.” “Developers.... said the [commercial] village would help build a sense of community, but neighbors said they already have that through schools, churches and the ballpark.”

July 21, 1999, USX Asked to Forego Retail Plan. “‘We have heard loud and clear from residents they don’t want any commercial in there,” said commissioner Allen Pate...” “...a spokeswoman for nearby residents, said ... we call it a shopping center.... people who live in neighborhoods off Al Seir and Patton Chapel roads don’t want to be used as connector streets for [delivery] truck traffic.”

Editor's Comment: In the seven years since the Preserve was discussed, it’s possible that the community attitude toward retail development has changed. The Council did eventually approve a change in The Preserve to allow a neighborhood business development. It’s possible that the residents who opposed it in 1999 are now in favor of it. But it is reasonable to ask why the same folks who didn’t want retail several years ago, now prefer it to a house of worship.