(Year in review) Property rezoning draws fire from residents

Dec. 28—The Times is counting down its top stories of 2022. Here's No. 4:

The semi-monthly public proceedings of Cullman's municipal government aren't typically acrimonious. In fact, they're seldom heavily-attended. But no city agenda topic turned out locals this year like a measure in May that centered on a swath of south Cullman property, drawing dozens of residents to a pair of contentious council meetings as the council went forward with a developer's request to rezone the land for higher-density use.

At a May 9 public hearing and again two weeks later at a regular meeting, the council faced crowds of local residents whose individual moods ranged from inquisitive to downright disgust, all over a proposal to rezone approximately five empty acres along Third Avenue SE.

Sought by local property owner the GLB Cullman, LLC group and previously favored by the city planning commission, the request asked the council's approval to convert the land's zoning from R-1 Residential — a low-density, single-family category — to R-4 Residential, which allows for the location of higher-density apartments.

The public hearing drew animated comment from residents from the nearby Caroll Acres subdivision, as well as those who live farther north along the strip of property, which lies near the King Edward Street intersection that turns traffic onto Third Avenue at a compact T-junction just east of King Edward's railroad crossing. Residents from elsewhere in the city also showed up just to voice their concern over a local planning move they felt hadn't been thoroughly presented to the public.

Those who live nearby raised a number of worries about how high-density development could affect both the immediate area as well as Third Avenue traffic traveling north toward East Elementary School. Carroll Acres homeowners questioned whether adding residents and paving at the low-lying area would exacerbate periodic flooding that affects their property farther to the south, while others voiced concern that East Elementary could not accommodate the presumed influx of new students whose families might move into the proposed apartment complex.

GLB Cullman representatives attempted to address many of those concerns during the May 9 hearing, noting in the process that a shift to R-4 zoning wasn't an automatic guarantee that the city would sign off on the development proposal itself: a two-story, 48-unit apartment complex priced at approximately $1,000 per month for a 2-bedroom unit.

Though some site preparation work has been done, the proposed apartment complex — named in presentation documents as "Old Edward Place" — has not yet been constructed at the Third Avenue site.

For those who opposed the rezoning measure in May, a particular source of irritation stemmed from the perceived manner in which the council, which already was operating as a four-person body due to a vacancy in the Place 1 seat at the time, moved on the proposal. Two weeks after fielding questions and complaints at the May 9 hearing, a bare quorum of three council members signed off on the shift to R-4 zoning at a regular meeting at which both the mayor and the Place 3 member weren't present.

The GLB Cullman group shared that it has offered to fund an independent traffic study to explore how the proposed development might affect traffic in the area, and cited a 2019 local housing study that concluded the city will need far more multifamily housing options over the next two decades to keep pace with its current rate of growth. Its owners also have emphasized that they are themselves residents of Cullman, and have no wish to develop the area in a way that would degrade either the function or the quality of life of the city they call home.

Benjamin Bullard can be reached by phone at 256-734-2131 ext. 234.