Huntsville City planners go by-the-book on new development

single-meta-cal July 26, 2023

The topic of municipal planning might not stir excitement, but its value is incalculable as Huntsville’s growth fuels housing demand.

Planning plays a significant role in current and future development, whether private or public. From parks and greenways to shopping centers and restaurants, each part of a project is scrutinized to ensure public and private benefits.

That scrutiny is particularly crucial when it comes to residential developments. With an estimated population of about 235,000 people, housing demand is higher than ever.

Over the past 10 years, the City added an average of 2,100 residential units per year. An additional 5,000 units ­– a mix of single-family homes and apartments – will be added in 2023. That may seem like a lot, but Huntsville’s Manager of Planning & Zoning Services Thomas Nunez said the City’s growth continues at a measured pace.

“At its base level, our residential growth is determined by land opportunities and the requests of the developer,” he said. “Planners use the tools we have available to evaluate those factors, and one of our best tools is our zoning ordinance.”

The zoning ordinance

The journey from an empty lot to a new home or apartment building is guided by a defined set of policies and procedures. Landowners have the right to develop their property however they wish if they meet the City’s stringent zoning and planning requirements as well as state and federal environmental guidelines.

“We have ordinances in place that address land acquisition and development, and if those guidelines are met, we can’t say a project is unfit for development,” Nunez said. “The City evaluates developments throughout the process.”

Within the zoning ordinance are numerous districts that protect both the property owner and adjacent residents. The most common residential districts are Residence 1 (single-family homes), Residence 2 (single-family attached) and Residence 2B (apartment buildings). The districts ensure the highest and best use of the property as well as contiguous zoning.

If a property owner disagrees with the zoning, they can apply for a rezoning via the City’s Planning Commission or zoning variance from the City’s Board of Zoning Adjustment, which meets monthly to consider requests.

Planning ahead

Each new development proposal, whether its residential or commercial, is vetted on everything from location and zoning to safety, infrastructure needs and community impact.

Development proposals are also guided by the Huntsville Planning Commission, which meets monthly to hear development requests, review the information and ask relevant questions. It’s also an opportunity for residents to learn more about a specific project and even meet with a developer.

Input from the Planning Commission as well as the public can mean the difference between a favorable or unfavorable recommendation.

Several other City departments, including Engineering, Traffic Engineering, Inspection, Water Pollution Control, Natural Resources and Legal, play a role in the issuance of a building permit – the final step in the process.

BIG Picture planning

Since its implementation in 2014, Huntsville’s master plan – The BIG Picture – has played a critical part in new residential developments. Madsen has described it as a living, breathing plan that adapts and bends with changing times.

To that end, a BIG Picture policy ensures zoning is not only consistent with, but supportive of, modern market-driven development. Dennis Madsen, Huntsville’s Manager of Urban & Long-Range Planning, said the City has updated its zoning in recent years to allow for a greater variety of housing options to meet market demands.

“The saying, ‘Our secret is out,’ has become like a broken record, but our growth over the past few years is certainly indicative of that,” he said. “The onus is on planners to ensure we grow in a way that doesn’t overwhelm our resources or infrastructure. We’ve been successful because we have the right checks and balances in place to ensure our growth is smart and sustainable.”

Visit The BIG Picture website to learn more about the City of Huntsville’s long-term planning goals.