Rezoning request denied next to condos
By Kevin Elliott
Hopes to develop a vacant lot next to the Westbrown Condominiums, 695 W. Brown Street in Birmingham, appears to have been thwarted on Wednesday, April 27, as the Birmingham Planning Board and neighboring residents largely opposed a rezoning request by the developer.
The 10,507-square-foot lot is on the west side of Watkins Street, south of the eight-unit Westbrown townhome development, owned by LB Land, LLC. The lot was rezoned in 2018 as part of the Westbrown development from R2 single-family to R8 multi-family zoning classification to accommodate the townhome development.
At the time, the former developer/landowner indicated to the city the desire to construct a single-family home on the site, as the property doesn’t meet requirements for additional multi-family development. The owner subsequently listed the land as a “general common area” for the townhome residents, according to deed documentation reviewed by city staff.
“In order to build anything, they need to rezone, then get a lot split approval from the city commission,” said Birmingham City Planner Brooks Cowan.
Anthony Palleschi with LB Land, LLC, said the city indicated the only way to build on the site is to have it rezoned from multi-family to single-family residential zoning, which LB Land is pursuing. Further, he said plans to construct a single-family home at the site was expressed in planning board minutes from 2018.
“We made it clear to the city from the beginning what we intended to do,” Palleschi said.
Townhome residents challenged the applicant’s request, as it was their understanding the land would be saved as green space, as it can’t be developed under its current zoning. Further, residents cited concerns about traffic, congestion and safety.
“We were told when we bought it would be preserved for green space for the residents and condo association,” said resident Brian Gordon, a townhome owner.
Birmingham resident Michael Tyranski, who lives down the street from the townhomes, said Watkins is already congested with traffic, and adding another home would be a detriment.
“Residents come and go on that narrow street, and it’s hard to pass and gets congested with the number of residents there,” he said. “The north end of the street is impossible to navigate, sometimes…I think the city has maximized the corner, and adding another residence will deflate brownstone values, overpopulate the corner and hurt the integrity and character of the neighborhood. I sympathize that the lot has value and are willing to come up with a solution that is a win for everyone.”
Tyranski said the residents and neighbors are willing to make the landowner an offer to purchase the vacant lot based on the market value under its current R-8 multi-family zoning.
Planning board members discussed the criteria prescribed by the zoning ordinance when considering a zoning request, and how the history of the land impacts their decision. Under the ordinance, the board must consider: if the land meets the objectives of the 2016 Master Plan; whether it matches existing uses in the surrounding properties; the zoning class of the general area; the suitability of uses proposed; and zoning trends of the general surrounding properties.
“Suppose that we find a rezoning is necessary to enable something to be built on that land, so it can be productive for the landowner,” said board member Daniel Share.”If we find that, but we also find there are some detriments that occur to surrounding properties as a result of rezoning. Is that something we are allowed to factor into our decision, or is that background information that may inform our thinking but we are tied to the five standards?
“The tricky part is that because of the nature of the Westbrown development, there is ambiguity whether we view this as part of the existing condominium development or look at it on its own. Whether or not it can be separated isn’t in our control.”
Share said the matter is ultimately a land-use issue, and should be determined as such. He said it’s true that the landowner can’t develop the property as currently zoned, and that it would match the surrounding single-family properties of the neighborhood, excluding the condo development, and that a single-family home would be more suitable than a multi-family home.
“I think it’s a land-use matter, not a neighborhood building or a lot split, and that rezoning is appropriate,” Share said. “That doesn’t mean a single-family development is appropriate, and I wouldn’t want anyone to or the city commission to think this is a very close case, nor that I would recommend a lot split to enable construction on the site.”
Board member Robin Boyle, who served on the planning board in 2018 when this was before them, said he recalls the original development and the discussion of the parcel in question, to which there was no final agreement. Rather than overcrowding the neighborhood, Boyle said the leftover land could be developed as a pocket park for the neighborhood. Further, he said the board should consider both the history and future of the land.
“It’s not simply an issue of land use. It’s an issue of the future land use of this area. That’s what we are talking about. We are a planning board, not a zoning board,” Boyle said. “There was a case made by residents and the board that this part of the parcel should have been considered as part of the whole wraparound of the building, and they didn’t do it and are left with this. The appropriate land use would be an organized open space.”
Board chair Scott Clein said it appears the developer made a mistake when initially developing the property not to utilize the parcel or have it rezoned at that time.
“I don’t know if it’s our job to help fix mistakes,” he said.
Board member J. Bryan Williams recommended the planning board forward the issue to the Birmingham City Commission with a recommendation to reject the rezoning request. Board members approved 5-1 with members Boyle, Clein, Share, Janelle Boyce and Bert Koseck voting in favor of recommending rejection and Share voting against rejection.