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.

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