As a city’s borders grow, planners must consider residents who live in outer-lying areas. Providing access to quality-of-life amenities is necessary, but so is ensuring safety for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.
To ensure growth, it must also be attractive to residential and retail developers. Building and development then underscore the need to preserve existing resources for future generations.
These issues were top of mind as Huntsville’s Big Picture Planning Team developed the Small Area Plan for the fast-growing Cove area. The plan was approved by the Huntsville Planning Commission at its March 23 meeting.
Because there were so many factors at play, planners gathered citizen input at virtually every step of the way through public meetings, surveys and one-on-one discussions. Development of the plan was initiated by GrowCove, a nonprofit organization that supports smart growth and collaboration between residents, businesses and organizations in Big Cove, Brownsboro, Hampton Cove and Owens Cross Roads.
The plan impacts about 17,000 residents east of Monte Sano and south of Dug Hill Road. City leaders anticipate a population boom, fueled by the completion of Cecil Ashburn Drive, quick commutes to downtown and Redstone Arsenal and top-performing schools.
Creating the plan
The plan was developed with smart growth in mind, but it also emphasizes the Cove’s strengths and recreational amenities like trails, greenways and the new Mark A. Russell Recreation Center.
“The plan helps Cove residents and businesses by giving us a map for our future,” said Brad Garland, an 11-year Cove resident and GrowCove official.
In a 2019 survey, residents were asked if they would prefer a plan that would keep development to a minimum, a more aggressive plan with more housing and commercial expansion or a third plan that would continue growth on its current track and preserve sensitive areas like greenways. About 77% of those surveyed chose the third option.
Dennis Madsen, Huntsville’s manager of Urban and Long-Range Planning, explained the Cove’s proximity to greenways, parks and preserves, and the Flint River are a large part of the community’s brand.
With smart planning, residents will continue to enjoy the community, the growth will spur more business development, and the Cove will remain an integral part of Huntsville city.
“The Cove Area Plan identified a range of segments that the City could build out to further improve bicycle and pedestrian connections to those resources,” he said. “At the same time, we’re planning to re-up our agreement with the Land Trust of North Alabama, to continue the partnership that has allowed us to preserve hundreds of acres in Huntsville and build miles of greenways.”
Huntsville Planner James Vandiver explained planning began following one of the wettest winters on record, which resulted in the nearby Flint River flooding surrounding lowlands. Even though most of the land is now agricultural, it could be developed in the future.
“The Cove residents, with this event fresh on their mind, let us know at the public meetings and through the online survey that preserving this land was important to them,” he said. “Preserving the mountain slopes by expanding the slope development districts to potential annexed areas was also important for scenic value as well as the very real threat of landslides.”
Garland said GrowCove’s mission is to help the Cove continue to grow in a smart, sustainable way. And while special care is being taken to preserve resources, it doesn’t mean doors are closed to new development.
Future residential and retail development could take a few different forms. A hypothetical town center would contain a mix of the two. In a survey, residents specifically requested a small restaurant or café, a community gathering space, small- and-mid-sized retail stores and a large restaurant. Some residents also requested a library and a public services building where licenses and tags could be renewed.
In an effort to both develop and preserve, Madsen said flexibility would be critical when creating residential developments. He explained lot sizes could get smaller so more land can be set aside for green space and to connect to parks and preserves.
“These sorts of ‘conservation subdivisions’ have become increasingly popular, and represent a renewed appreciation for natural resources,” he said.
Vandiver said now that the Small Area Plan has been approved, the next step will be implementing it. There are still several infrastructure improvements that will also need to be addressed, including improved safety for both pedestrians and bicyclists. One plan being considered is a potential pedestrian crossing under busy U.S. 431.
Other possible changes are safety improvements to Caldwell Lane and Cherry Tree and Wade roads. Those include wider shoulders, turn lanes and/or reflective striping. The City also plans to work with the Alabama Department of Transportation to limit entrances and exits along U.S. 431 to enhance safety.
A project in the study phase is a Complete Streets plan for both Taylor Lane and Taylor Road. In the case of Taylor Road, the City is considering turning the five-lane road into a three-lane road with a center turn lane and 8-foot wide bicycle paths on each side. This could be accomplished in the short term by restriping the roadway, enabling it to return to its wider use in the future if traffic demands increase. The City is also looking at improvements to Old Big Cove Road to help maintain traffic flow.
“We will also be studying the post-COVID/post-Cecil Ashburn impacts and make adjustments to the design in coordination with Traffic Engineering,” Vandiver said. “Once the plans are ready and we’re closer to construction, a public meeting will be held in the Cove for residents to review and give their input.”
As for Garland, he hopes the end result of the plan not only helps residents and businesses, but also avoids haphazard development that can cause traffic issues, inefficiencies and shortcomings in service.
“We want the Cove to be a bright part of Huntsville but maintain its over-the-mountain aesthetic and appeal, without turning into just a bedroom community,” he said. “With smart planning, residents will continue to enjoy the community, the growth will spur more business development, and the Cove will remain an integral part of Huntsville city.”
Click here to learn more about the Cove Small Area Plan.