Auburn's City Council approved an urban tree canopy evaluation from the Alabama Forestry Commission and almost $2.1 million for new developments and the purchases of new vehicles for city departments at their regular meeting on Tuesday, but that wasn't the main topic of discussion for most of the Feb. 6 meeting.
The City Council came out in defense of itself after receiving a firestorm of criticism from several unsatisfied citizens. Members of the community expressed their distaste for the recent development discussions by the council, some of which were held behind closed doors. The central issue was height ordinances.
In the opinions of many long-time Auburn residents, the height ordinances protect the charm of the downtown area.
The current height limit for the College Edge Overlay District is 65 feet, but there is much discussion about bringing the item back up for discussion to raise it to 75 feet. Some council members are in fierce opposition to the move, some in strong support and others are indifferent to the issue.
“It seems to be a procedural convenience to further some particular agenda — what that is, I don’t know,” Parsons said to The Plainsman about a long-term height ordinance battle among the council, which will be discussed at the city's Planning Commission meeting Thursday night.
A Nov. 21 meeting included a presentation to the community members from the City Council concerning development plans. Several citizens and council members asserted that Ward 8 Councilman Tommy Dawson said something about the height ordinance at the end of the meeting, but it was inaudible to most of the room.
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“I don’t want to hide things,” Dawson said at the beginning of the meeting.
Auburn resident Bill Caskey approached the council about the proposed height ordinance.
“I think the City Council has been too accommodating to the developers," Caskey said. "The residents don’t want to ruin the aesthetics of downtown Auburn.”
The ordinance covers properties along College Street and Magnolia Avenue and includes all lots and buildings on College Street between Thatch and Mitcham avenues and those on Magnolia Avenue from Wright to Gay streets.
There has been much debate over the height of the Whatley building, a project that the council released information about in early November 2017. The building, conceptualized by Auburn alumnus Steve Fleming, would need to be 75 feet in height, according to the plans.
Fleming said that he wished for the building to look like it had been in the area for more than 50 years to preserve the charm of the downtown area. In November, he expressed his desire to begin construction in the spring and to finish within a year.
Mayor Bill Ham said that he believed the council’s process to be “crystal clear” and said that the concerns brought forward by community members were mainly misunderstandings, rather than under-the-table deals as insinuated by those who spoke at the meeting.
Ward 3 Councilwoman Beth Witten expressed her disappointment at the way the issue was both presented and handled at the November meeting.
When asked about the transparency of the council, Witten told The Plainsman that it was not the issue that concerned her, but it was the process.
In sentiments echoed by Ward 5 Councilwoman Lynda Tremaine, Witten said the council had moved too quickly on the height ordinance, not allowing the citizens or the council to fully understand what was being said before the November meeting adjourned.
She said Dawson was not wrong in his actions, but that everyone misunderstood what was being brought before the council.
“At the time, it wasn’t right or wrong, it just wasn’t clear,” Witten said. “It was at the end of the meeting, and not on our agenda to discuss, so I did not add to the discussion because I did not understand.
“We, as a council, need to make sure that we communicate clearly how things are brought before this body. If we can have a clear and concise process, then the rest is much easier to discuss and debate and go forward with.”
Witten encouraged community members to get involved at the next few meetings.
“There is ample opportunity between now and when this [item] comes to us on March 20 for there to be significant public input," she said. "That is the positive of all this.”
The item will appear on the agenda for Planning Commission’s Thursday night meeting, along with an item relating to the Northwest Auburn Neighborhood Plan, which will be held at 5 p.m. at 141 North Ross St. The meeting will be open to the public.
Ward 2 Councilman Ron Anders encouraged the community to make their thoughts on the ordinance known, suggesting they contact the council in the coming days.
“I want to assure the citizens that your opportunity to speak – and speak often – is there,” he said. “Nothing has been taken away from you. And we fully expect to hear from you.”
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