December 9, 2015

Tuscaloosa City Council takes step toward lake law repeal

By Jason Morton Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 09, 2015 1:53 AM

With a 5-1 margin, the Tuscaloosa City Council voted Tuesday to repeal a portion of the city code that set parameters on the size of residential lots on Lake Tuscaloosa.

Because of the lack of unanimity – Councilman Eddie Pugh cast the lone opposition vote – the nature of the law change demands a second vote, expected to come next week.

If the margin remains the same, the repeal will be in effect.

The size of lots along the lake has been a source of contention among a potential developer, certain NorthRiver Yacht Club property owners and City Hall.

Developer Mark Hearing has plans for Maison du Lac, French for “lake house,” the tentative name of a proposed, 14.6-acre development on Lake Tuscaloosa.

The most recent plans for the project call for 14 lake front homes and 16 lake view homes off Yacht Club Way Northeast and immediately south of the Yacht Club facility on land currently owned by NR Properties LLC.

State records show that NR Properties was established in 2009 by Ray Robbins, the current vice president, secretary and general counsel for the Westervelt Company.

As Hearing’s development moved through the city’s approval process, Section 18-64 was discovered by those concerned with the potential development.

Tuscaloosa-based attorney and state Rep. Bill Poole has been retained as the legal representative for the relatives of John Key McKinley, the Tuscaloosa native and former CEO of Texaco Inc., who own property near the proposed Maison du Lac development.

Poole lobbied against a proposed strengthening of Section 18-64 during a Nov. 3 meeting of the City Council’s administration and policy committee.

And while he’s attended most City Council meetings pertaining to discussions and potential votes on the matter, he has not spoken publicly about it since.

However, Tuscaloosa attorney Bryan Winter has. On Tuesday, Winter took a decidedly different approach regarding the lake law than he did a month earlier.

During that same Nov. 3 meeting, Winter, who said he was speaking as a concerned resident of NorthRiver Yacht Club, said he supported the amendment that would have increased the existing regulations from a minimum width of 50 feet and an overall area of at least 20,000 square feet, or about a half-acre, to a minimum 150-foot width, 150-foot depth and overall area of 1 acre.

On Tuesday, Winter – again claiming that he was speaking only as a concerned NorthRiver resident and property owner – said the council should repeal the code section immediately.

The section of the code “does nothing to protect the lake,” he said . It “is actually counterproductive because it would push developers to make long, skinny lots,” Winter said, noting that such a developmental plan would eliminate more lakeside vegetation than intended. “This has been going on for a long, long time and this needs to come to a conclusion.”

Winter’s position was supported by Mayor Walt Maddox, City Attorney Glenda Webb and five of the six council members present for Tuesday night’s vote.

Maddox pointed to the city attorney’s assessment that the law is unenforceable. And as a sworn elected official of the city, it would be ethically precarious to try and enforce a law that is believed to be questionable, he said.

“Think about that course of action for a second,” Maddox e said.

Additionally, Maddox said the debate over repealing the section of the code is a red herring born of negotiation tactics between differing sides and offers little protection of Lake Tuscaloosa beyond the regulations and requirements that have been enacted during the last decade.

“If you repeal (Section) 18-64, the lake will be in no more harm than it is today,” Maddox said. “Do not let a potential economic (argument) flip this into something related to lake quality.”

Webb maintains that Section 18-64 is not enforceable as written.

It was added to the city’s code of laws in June 1991 as part of an overall code provision that was created as a means to shield the county’s primary source of drinking water from a variety of harms.

But Section 18-64 falls under the Parks and Recreation chapter of the city code, whereas construction guidelines are normally found in the zoning chapter.

That makes it difficult to enforce, Webb said, and its wording creates a questionably legal foundation since it cannot be applied outside of the city’s planning jurisdiction.

“If we determine that these regulations are necessary and reflect our current desire, they need to be recodified in the zoning chapter,” she said. “But if the true concern is lake protection, there are other measures I believe need to be focused on.”

Webb said a number of additions to the city code – from developmental requirements to bans on land disturbances within a certain distance from the lake’s shore – would be of greater benefit to the lake than regulating lot sizes.

And she acknowledged that repealing the law now makes it appear that City Hall is clearing obstacles for Hearing’s development, as it has been accused by opponents of the law’s repeal, but she denied that to be the reason.

Rather, she said, it was a matter of eliminating a bad law that until recently was unknown to her and other members of the Office of the City Attorney.

“How long do you let things fester?,” she said. “Or do you just lance it an move on.”

Reach Jason Morton at or 205-722-0200.