April 25, 2000
by Bill Patterson
There is no zoning or land-use planning in the unincorporated areas of Mobile County. Strip shopping centers and chemical plants are built next to homes, and the homeowners can do nothing. Yet such development affects relatively few when compared to the problems created by rapid growth in formerly rural areas. From 1960 to 1996, the population in the unincorporated portion of Mobile County increased 144 percent, while the population of the incorporated part increased only three percent. Such growth brings traffic jams and pollution, particularly in the western areas of the county.
The principle unit of local government in the county's unincorporated areas is the Mobile County Commission. Last week Mobile County Commissioner Sam Jones answered a list of questions submitted by The Harbinger. Jones indicated that with the exception of highway planning, Mobile County has no plan or regulations to guide business or residential growth. He said Mobile County has no land-use plan, no plan for water and sewer service in the county, and no plan for building new parks and recreation facilities. The county does require all plans for new subdivisions and trailer parks to be approved by the county Engineering Department, Jones indicated, and he added the county is "in the process of hiring someone" to draw up a comprehensive plan for water and sewer service in the county.
But the county's involvement with subdivisions is limited, The Harbinger learned. While state law requires developers to submit plans for new subdivisions to the county Engineering Department, the department relies on the expertise and good faith of developers and their engineers to design subdivisions. The county's involvement is also limited because all lots of five acres or more are exempt from the subdivision rules. Land use is regulated in a limited way because the Mobile County Heath Department requires all those installing septic tanks to get a permit, a process that prevents construction on some land where septic tanks will not work.
The main planning for growth is the county's highway construction program. According to Jones, the county's Pay-As-You-Go road paving program is a four-year strategic plan. "The program is designed to improve and upgrade roads in the rural and urban areas of the county. A great deal of planning goes into the process of determining which roads will be placed under this program," he said. Jones believes the county's road program helps guide growth.
For comprehensive planning for roads, the county relies on the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). The Harbinger talked with Bill Morgan, a planner at the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission (SARPC) and a member of the MPO. He said he had been involved with the MPO since the mid-1970s. The local MPO has sixteen members, thirteen voting and three non-voting, he said. The voting members include state legislators, the mayors of Mobile, Prichard, Chickasaw, Saraland, Satsuma, and Creola, a county commissioner, Mobile city council members, members of the Mobile Transit Authority, the state Department of Transportation, and appointees from SARPC. The non-voting members are officials of government agencies.
Morgan said the federal government requires "any entity in any urban area with over 50,000 people" to be part of an MPO if it wants to get federal transit dollars, and he knows of no city of any size that is not part of an MPO. He said local officials first began to do planning for roads and highways in the late 1960s when the MPO's predecessor, the Policy Committee, was set up. Mobile County Commissioner Sam Jones is Chairman of the MPO today.
Morgan said the MPO has broad responsibilities. The planning group is involved in a highway project from the time it is "conceived until it is designed." He said the MPO plans roads, highways, public transit, and bicycle paths. The group's planning can be long-term, he said, including projects "from tomorrow to twenty years." He added the organization updates its plans every five years.
The MPO does little to plan for growth, according to Morgan. He said the work of the MPO has not made much of an impact on development in the county. "We don't anticipate new development," he said. Also, there is a limit to the planning done by the MPO because the organization doesn't plan many of the county's roads and streets. Morgan said MPO's planners classify roads into four types: principle arterial, minor arterial, collector, and local. He said the MPO was not involved in roads classified as local. He pointed to Halls Mill Road and the east end of Old Shell Road as examples of Collectors.
Morgan added that while new roads can act as "catalysts for development," growth in Mobile County has been too rapid for the highway planners. "We try to catch up to development. I wish we could have the luxury to get out ahead of development," he said. Morgan pointed to the Schillinger Road Loop project as an example of a project that more or less anticipated development. He said one problem has been that the county was the only local government on the MPO without a master plan, and he suggested planning by the county could end up "a waste of time" because county officials don't have any authority to enforce a plan.
Commissioner Jones believes the county will not be able to plan for and regulate growth until the state legislature grants the county Home Rule. "That is one of the reasons I agreed to become a member of the committee to reform the Alabama Constitution," Jones said. "The county has also been on the forefront with the Alabama Association of County Commissions in trying to achieve Home Rule. Home Rule is vital to our county," he added.
Jones said the county needed Home Rule because "it would give the county the local authority to develop and implement plans that address our land use, zoning, water and sewer needs." The Harbinger asked Jones if there was any state that he looked to as a model for zoning and land use planning. Jones answered, "I've looked at many counties throughout the country. There is not one specific state I favor. Alabama is so unique that any zoning or land use planning would be a welcome relief for county government."
The Harbinger talked with Jeff Jordan of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs about planning and regulation by Mobile County. He didn't believe the county did any inventory of land use. "Even the identification of wetlands just isn't there," he said. Jordan thinks the county can do several things soon to regulate growth. He indicated that, from his experience with local government, the county's subdivision requirements were "the only existing handle" on growth in the county. He suggested Mobile County could toughen its subdivision requirements.
Jordan also suggested Mobile County adopt planning and zoning districts like Baldwin County's. He said Baldwin County is "light years ahead of Mobile County." He said that Baldwin County had set up zoning and land-use planning in some districts where voters had approved this form of home rule through referendums. Jordan believes that better decisions can be made at the level of local districts. "Local people know the topography, environment and quality of life best," he said. "Each individual community should have the authority to direct their own growth and spend federal money for their community as a whole."
Jordan wondered, however, if there is the political will in the county to enforce the greater regulation required by community planning. He said many in the county will always vote against increased regulation because "they don't want anyone telling them what to do." Jordan said that even the Mobile County residents who support zoning are ambivalent about it because of doubts about elected officials. "People don't want tires burned next to their home, but they also don't trust how the county commissioners would zone their property."
Land use planning and zoning are not new concepts. In 1973 Oregon enacted a Land Use Planning Program. With the 1973 law, a state board drafted statewide goals, and each city and county adopted a comprehensive land-use plan and a zoning ordinance. Each city adopts an urban growth boundary that marks the limit of development. Each county enacted conservation laws to protect farms and forests. Statewide planning restricted the use of private land, but the voters supported the legislation because it prevented sprawl and inefficient public services.
In 1975, Florida enacted standards for local land-use plans in counties and cities. This was followed in 1985 by a State Comprehensive Plan to provide long-range planning. Florida law contains a strong element to protect against urban sprawl called "concurrency." Concurrency means "development cannot be permitted until roads, water, sewer, parks, recreation and other essential infrastructure are in place." Land-use restrictions were not easily achieved, and it was necessary to set up a method of arbitration for property-right disputes. The state's effort has reduced urban sprawl, stopped "leapfrog" subdivisions and minimized the costs of unplanned development.