Council argues over downtown facade door

How valuable is a door? For downtown businessman Matt LeMond, the answer is simple. It’s $8,000.

That’s how much it will cost the owner of several establishments, including the Outsider, to replace the solid wood door on the business with one the city’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) deems appropriate, after the Mobile City Council upheld the decision at Tuesday’s meeting. LeMond had appealed the decision.

The council decision was split, with three members — District 2 Councilman William Carroll, District 6 Councilman Scott Jones and District 1 Councilman Cory Penn — voting in favor of LeMond and granting the appeal. The other four members voted to uphold the ARB decision.

At issue for the ARB is that commercial buildings with facades made mostly of glass must also have front doors made primarily of glass, according to the ARB guidelines. While LeMond had initially applied to put a glass door on the structure, the decision was made later to install a solid wood door instead. At the meeting, LeMond admits there was a breakdown in communication, but he insisted he wasn’t trying to dupe the board.

“The intent was not to sneak anything through,” he said.

When the city’s Historic Development Commission, of which the ARB is a part, found out the wrong type of door was used, they spoke with LeMond. LeMond then applied for an after-the-fact review of the project in June of this year, but was denied because the door did not match the guidelines approved in 2016.

LeMond told councilors he believes the denial was due, in part, to the project not matching what he had originally applied for.

“I believe the words I’m hearing from the ARB are opinion based,” LeMond said. “My intent was to do what’s best for our community and not cause any heartburn.”

Deputy City Attorney Florence Kessler told councilors it was their job to determine if the ARB followed its rules. If so, the council had to uphold the decision.

Like LeMond, Carroll pointed to several examples of commercial buildings that would not be in compliance with the guidelines the ARB is currently using.

“The misconception here is that we’re calling guidelines solid rules,” Carroll said. “These guidelines are not rules set in stone. In this case, it is my belief the door in question meets historical guidelines.”

Kessler and ARB member Bob Allen both argued the buildings in question were grandfathered in when the guidelines effect in 2016.

“We just apply the standards we have to each application,” Allen said. “Our obligation is to say what does and doesn’t meet the standards.”

Jones called the actions of the ARB “punitive” and pointed out LeMond had followed seven of eight facade guidelines, but was still being punished.

“The guidelines are there to guide us,” Jones said. “I think [ARB] abused their power in this case. I think it was punitive.”

Whether councilors like the new door or not, or whether there are similar doors at other downtown locations doesn’t matter, District 5 Councilman Joel Daves said. It all comes down to whether the board acted within its authority or not, he argued.

“I believe the board did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in that ruling,” Daves said.

“That’s your opinion,” Jones shot back.

Daves cautioned against approving the appeal because of the impact it could have on other cases.

“If we approve this appeal, what we’re saying to everyone who applies to the ARB is you can go to the ARB, you can get guidance from the ARB and you can then ignore the ARB,” he said. “I don’t think we should set that precedent.”

Tree Commission issue

The Mobile Tree Commission has not held a meeting since March and John Robb, president of the Friends of Mobile Trees, wants to know why.

Robb came to Tuesday’s meeting to discuss the issue with councilors, who are the appointing authority for the seven-member Tree Commission.

Robb told councilors there are two possible reasons the commission has failed to hold a meeting since early spring — either there is an issue with reaching a four-member quorum or the commission is “boycotting” the meetings.

Robb believes the latter is the case, arguing after the meeting that commissioners were able to meet regularly via Zoom.

The Tree Commission meets to decide on applications to take trees from the city’s rights-of-ways. If the board can’t meet, those applications for commercial developers go on hold. To fix the apparent backlog in commercial applications, city Chief of Staff James Barber said the administration is preparing a rule that would grant an application if the Tree Commission fails to meet two months in a row.

Tree Commissioner Andrew Blejwas told Lagniappe there’s no boycott and added that Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office has been great to work with. Blejwas said the issue is that until August, the commission only had four members because councilors have not been making appointments to the board.

Having only four members, which is the minimum for a quorum, made meetings impossible if someone was out with an illness, vacation or day-job travel, Blejwas said. At one monthly meeting, he said, the commission didn’t have an agenda to work from because there were no new applications to discuss.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: