A divided Decatur City Council sided with concerned neighbors Monday and denied a couple's request to rezone a historic home from residential to commercial.
The decision blocks Berval and Sandy Bennett's attempt to move their antique store on Market Street Northwest to the 113-year-old house at Wilson and Sycamore streets Northwest. The council voted 4-1 to deny the rezoning request, with District 4 Councilman Charles Kirby casting the only vote to approve it.
Councilmen Roger Anders, Gary Hammon and Chuck Ard asked that the council revisit the Bennetts' request in six months. Meanwhile, officials want the Planning Department to develop a short-term plan for the strip of properties along busy Wilson Street/Alabama 20 to determine whether to keep it residential, allocate funds for a city-owned green space or rezone a chunk of it as redevelopment or commercial districts. District 1 Councilman Billy Jackson said the area should remain residential, which has been the city's long-standing policy.
The council reached its decision after more than a half hour of at-times fiery public comments from residents who vehemently opposed commercial zoning.
Dozens of Northwest Decatur residents packed council chambers for the public hearing.
"What happens if they sell it, and then the next business that comes in is a liquor store, a strip joint or some big business?" asked Yvonne Elliott of Sykes Street Northwest. "The problem is we don't have any control over what goes there if you change the zoning to business."
Elliott's concern was shared by many property owners who fear the commercial zoning will spawn businesses that will intrude on their quiet residential neighborhood beside the bustling highway.
"The residents there have invested their lives there and continue to," Jackson said. "They're trying to protect and grow their neighborhood."
The Bennetts say they've spent $40,000 to restore the home at 1105 Sycamore St. N.W. They came to the council to appeal the Decatur Planning Commission's rejection last month. The commission and Planning Department sided with the neighbors, citing the long-range plan which calls for property south of the highway to remain residential to preserve a buffer zone for Northwest and Northeast neighborhoods. Three previous attempts to rezone the property for business have failed.
"It's a setback, not a defeat," Berval Bennett said of the decision.
Added his wife Sandy Bennett: "At least we've got the city's attention now, and they're going to look at it."
The Bennetts collected signatures from about 40 residents who approved the zoning change. Those opposing it, however, claimed many of the signatures were from renters, not property owners.
Berval Bennett pointed out that residents didn't complain when Sharpley Funeral Home operated there from 1979 to 1983. He also cited lumber company Gobble Fite's location on Wilson Street just blocks from the home.
"I've spent a lot of time and money to bring this property up and make it a nice place," Berval Bennett said. "It could be an asset to the neighborhood, not a detriment. I don't think I should be punished for trying to open a business."
Mayor Don Kyle recently proposed rezoning a strip of Wilson Street along with portions of West Moulton Street to redevelopment districts to encourage business growth along those corridors.
Similar zoning has been applied to Sixth Avenue Southeast, which brought a Walgreen's pharmacy and a new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market slated to open this spring. However, that zoning was welcomed by nearby residents, not opposed, Jackson said.
Tiffeny Owens can be reached at 256-340-2440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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