City Planners: Smart growth principles guide preservation and development

single-meta-cal August 20, 2021

Anyone who’s ever planted a garden knows there’s a bit of preplanning involved. Not only does the gardener have to determine the dimensions and exact location, but plants have to be chosen based on sunlight, soil quality, moisture and season.

Cultivating a city is a similar process, though on a much larger scale. The City of Huntsville’s planners determine what to plant and where to plant it in what is now the state’s largest City of 215,000 people.

Recruiting desirable industries, retailers and residential developments is a priority for planners, as is expanding and improving existing infrastructure. Planners say smart growth, however, is an even greater priority when working development projects.

Achieving smart growth

Smart growth is a theory that places as much value on protecting natural resources and quality of life as it does a profitable development. There are several core principles on display throughout Huntsville’s diverse communities. Chief among them are mixed land use, a range of housing choices, walkable neighborhoods, preservation of green space and wetlands, multiple transportation modes and public input.

A jogger runs along a greenway trail in Huntsville. Trees and grass are in the background.

A jogger runs along a path at Elgie’s Walk Greenway in South Huntsville. When it comes to development, City planners have stringent measures in place to protect greenways and floodplains.

Those principles are realized in a number of ways, including stipulations tied to funding. Some of Huntsville’s projects use a mix of local, state and federal dollars. In those cases, there are a myriad federal environmental safeguards guiding the process to protect wetlands, floodplains, water tributaries and endangered species.

Much of the City’s blueprint for smart growth is outlined in The BIG Picture, a comprehensive master plan developed by City planners and public stakeholders. Several smart growth-centric initiatives are outlined within the plan’s principles and policies, including alternative transportation modes and mixed-use development. Dennis Madsen, Huntsville’s manager of Urban and Long-Range Planning, said both concepts benefit Huntsville’s future.

“The renewed emphasis on mixed-use projects can reduce automotive trips and facilitate more walking and biking, which reduces overall carbon footprint,” he said. “The higher density of development may also yield more tax base per parcel, representing a more efficient use of land and providing more opportunities for preservation in other areas.”

The environmental lens

Potentially impactful projects must meet National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guidelines, as well as regulations established by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). Other safeguards are often required, including environmental impact statements that review potential effects of a project and environmental assessments, which are usually required for infrastructure development.

Mayor Tommy Battle and Engineering Director Kathy Martin talk next to a road pylon. There is gravel in the foreground and trees in the background.

Mayor Tommy Battle speaks with Huntsville Engineering Director Kathy Martin prior to the reopening of Cecil Ashburn Drive. Road projects are subject to extensive environmental surveys to protect natural resources.

“There are ADEM requirements to protect particular soil types that are hydraulic in nature for protection of wetlands and development in areas prone to landslides or floods,” said Thomas Nunez, Huntsville’s manager of Planning Services. “Consideration is given to the development and land rights of a property owner while still ensuring protection of natural features.”

Huntsville continually refines processes related to green space designation as well as connections to recreational amenities and stormwater management. The City updated its stormwater management manual in 2020 to reflect new design and discharge standards. The standards are used in permitting for new industrial, commercial and residential construction sites.

“It promotes low-impact development, increases protection in priority watersheds and allows for stricter enforcement for best management practices,” said Huntsville Engineering Director Kathy Martin. “It also allows for new design strategies to reduce post-construction runoff and improve overall water quality.”

From a planning point of view, the goal is always to ensure that any impacts of new development or redevelopment are outweighed by benefits, and this includes environmental.”

Location and zoning

Land use is a smart growth principle that doesn’t necessarily follow a formula because being too restrictive can be prohibitive.

“We want to be able to respond to the market,” Madsen said. “Pressure for housing, office and retail can change and evolve over time, and we want a city that can respond quickly and adapt.”

Shane Davis, Huntsville’s director of Urban Development, said zoning is a better alternative than following a land-use formula because zoning determines what can be built where. The key, he said, is ensuring zoning for differing uses does not diminish the value or success of adjacent uses.

“For example, poor planning would be zoning land for industrial uses while the adjacent property is zoned residential,” Davis said. “There has to be a transition between these uses such that each add overall value to a City but co-exist in a way that are separated while being easily accessible through good infrastructure planning.”

Land preservation

With so much growth and building, it’s easy for longtime residents to be fearful of seeing outdoor recreational areas and natural resources gobbled up by development. Planners say that won’t happen because quality-of-life amenities are valued as much or more than any commercial or residential project.

A white egret takes flight at Elgie's Walk Greenway in South Huntsville as a family walks on a trail.

A white egret takes flight at Elgie’s Walk Greenway as a family walks on a trail. Huntsville’s planners say natural resources and green spaces are just as vital to the City’s future as residential and commercial development.

In an effort to protect sensitive areas, Huntsville has partnered with organizations like the Land Trust of North Alabama and the Singing River Trail to identify, acquire and preserve land throughout the City. The City renewed its agreement with the Land Trust earlier this year.

Most of Huntsville’s development isn’t affecting valuable green space enjoyed by the public. Davis explained it’s occurring on flatlands once used for agriculture.

“The City has had polices in place that deter development in heavily wooded areas of the City,” he said. “The dense wooded areas of Huntsville are mainly on heavily sloped or mountainous terrain. These areas are mostly protected under the City’s slope development regulations that protect these attributes. Also, our partnership with the Land Trust continues to protect some of Huntsville greatest natural areas.”

Madsen echoed Davis’ comments and said there is always increased sensitivity where preservation is concerned. He said the City’s guidelines would continue to evolve while following federal and state regulations.

“From a planning point of view, the goal is always to ensure that any impacts of new development or redevelopment are outweighed by benefits, and this includes environmental,” Madsen said.