Decatur may get a new-style storage facility operated by U-Haul on Sixth Avenue Southeast after a zoning compromise that could result in new redevelopment district rules.
U-Haul is considering purchasing property just south of Decatur Shopping Center and Julia’s Pools, across from Saputo Dairy Foods, for the storage facility. The property is now vacant because the building that formerly housed Anderson Boats and a previous location of Julia's Pools was demolished after being severely damaged in the April 3, 2018, storm.
The Planning Commission voted unanimously this week to recommend changing the property's zoning from RD-2, redevelopment district, to M-1, light manufacturing, to allow the storage facility project to move forward. The City Council must also OK the change. Representatives of the owners promised to reapply for RD-2 zoning once its standards can be rewritten to allow certain types of storage buildings.
A compromise was needed because the property's current RD-2 zoning specifically “prohibits” mini-storage facilities, Planning Commission Chairman Kent Lawrence told the commission at its Tuesday meeting.
City Planner Lee Terry said the committee that reviews proposed zoning changes voted against a request to rezone the property to M-1, light manufacturing. RD zoning was approved in 2014 as a way to protect adjacent neighborhoods while promoting growth along Sixth Avenue.
Jeff Parker of Parker Real Estate, with the assistance of engineer Blake McAnally, represented U-Haul and landowners Wiley and Julia Dunlap before the Planning Commission. Parker said U-Haul’s purchase of the 3.8-acre property is contingent on obtaining zoning that would allow the company to build the storage facility.
Parker said U-Haul would like to build a climate-controlled, three- or four-story building in which customers can “pull in, they let the doors down behind them and then their items are uploaded to a storage unit.”
U-Haul has built similar storage facilities in a number of cities recently, including Huntsville and Florence.
He showed the commission a photo he took of a four-story facility on Research Park Boulevard in Huntsville, and said a facility in Miami, Florida, is 16 stories. The height of the planned Decatur facility has not been decided, Parker said.
“This is not your typical mini-storage,” Parker said. “I’m all for RD-2 because it’s allowed me to do a lot of deals, but this is a concept change.”
Parker said U-Haul is considering building two of these storage facilities in Decatur. He would not identify the other location under consideration, but said he doesn’t think the other project is contingent on the Sixth Avenue project occurring.
“This is an idea the city needs to get ready for,” Parker said. “They’re all going vertical with storage unit likes this. If U-Haul doesn’t build this one, other national brands will, and they may want to build here, too, in the future. Our city needs this type of storage units.”
Assistant City Attorney Chip Alexander said the issue for the city isn't changing to M-1 for this proposed project but what the M-1 zone would allow in the future if this business were replaced by something else.
Terry said RD-2 has specific provisions because it backs up to a residential area.
“It has very strict buffer requirements including a berm that creates a solid wall between the business and the homes. M-1 does not have these requirements at all.”
Parker said U-Haul is willing to install a buffer like the one required in RD-2 even with M-1 zoning.
Alexander said the city can’t force the new owners to do a buffer so they would have to depend on the new owners to follow through with the promise.
Parker suggested the promise could be included in the sales contract, and Planning Commission members supported that idea. Terry added the sales contract promise as one of the conditions for approval.
Making zoning text amendments to the RD-2 zoning to allow the storage project could take up to three months since City Council would have to approve changes, and Parker said he wanted to avoid such a long delay.
Terry suggested as a compromise that the Planning Commission approve the M-1 zoning change, which would allow Parker to move forward with the sale. The new owner would promise to request another zoning change to RD-2 after the council approves the zoning text amendment, he said.
The city had put a moratorium on zoning text amendments during a rewrite of the new zoning ordinance, but Terry said they ended the moratorium because the rewrite was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. He said the new zoning ordinance now likely won’t be ready for the public until next spring.
Alexander said it would be “virtually impossible” to enforce this compromise, but Parker and McAnally guaranteed the owner would not have a problem with this agreement and they are willing to include it in the final plat.
Planning Commission member Frances Tate said her only concern is that adjusting the zoning would set a precedent that the commission would be willing to make similar changes to fit future businesses into an area in which the zoning doesn’t work.
Lawrence responded that the Planning Commission would have to make it clear that decisions like this are on a case-by-case basis. The commission then approved the compromise on zoning.
The commission also approved a request from the Dunlaps to create two parcels of 3.6 acres and .13 of an acre. Terry said this adjustment to the property line on the north end of the property would provide access for the current location of Julia’s Pools to its loading dock.