TUSCALOOSA, AL — Former Tuscaloosa City Attorney and current Zoning Board of Adjustments Chairman Robert W. Ennis has withdrawn his name from the reappointment review at the headquarters following disagreements with the staff of the city and one particular resident regarding short-term rental properties (STRs).
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“I enjoyed my time on the zoning board, and I hope everyone thinks they’ve had a fair hearing with me as chairman,” Ennis told Patch Monday.
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In a letter Sunday to Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox and members of the city council, Ennis insisted he had been told he did not have council support to be reappointed and formally announced his decision to withdraw his name from the review.
“I find it dishonest for anyone to argue that a short-term rental (STR) in the Highlands should be treated differently than those in other areas,” Ennis explained in his email on Sunday. “No neighborhood is better or more lawful than another in the city. The wealth of a neighborhood doesn’t matter and no one is above the law.”
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Ennis also cited email communications with City Attorney Scott Holmes who informed Ennis that he was not present or watching the live broadcast of the Zoning Board of Adjustments hearings from the September 26 regarding STR properties in the Highlands.
However, he said Holmes had mentioned that Ennis had lost Council support after concerns were raised following the September 26 hearing. Ennis told Patch that he spoke to several advisers who confirmed him.
“You have dedicated your life to making this city great and have left a great legacy and I know I personally benefit from your hard work every day,” Holmes wrote in the email. “Neither I nor the City can ever thank you enough for that.
Ennis insisted – and confirmed in an interview with Patch – that the request came immediately after a heated exchange on the phone involving himself and Highland resident solicitor Randy Fowler.
Fowler did not respond to Patch’s multiple requests for comment when this story was published.
Ennis singled out Fowler as one of the most vocal opponents of short-term rentals in the historic district, sending numerous emails to city hall officials denouncing the ZBA and short-term rentals. Fowler is also someone Ennis says he has a personal history with, including Fowler who wrote Ennis’ parents’ wills.
In Holmes’ initial email to Ennis, no mention of his exchange with Fowler was mentioned, but the city attorney said everything that happened had upset council members, who then reported their concerns to Holmes and Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox.
Holmes also mentioned in the email that the incident in question follows a particularly heated disagreement several months ago between Ennis and the city’s executive director of urban development, Ashley Crites.
“Based on these issues, I do not believe you will have Council support for a reappointment to the ZBA,” Holmes wrote to Ennis. “I tell you this not to suggest right or wrong, but out of courtesy to give you the opportunity to avoid a public debate on the subject.”
According to an email response from Ennis to Holmes, the ZBA president alluded to Fowler and said he hadn’t had a chance to defend himself, but refused to be intimidated by such tactics from a resident who disagreed with the board’s approach.
“I have to be honest, I deeply hate the disrespectful and dismissive manner in which I was treated on this particular issue simply to appease a neighborhood’s sense of entitlement,” Ennis wrote to city officials. “I love my community and I’m sure you’ll find someone as committed as I am to take my place.”
Ennis explained in an interview with Patch that following a particular email sent to elected officials and others at City Hall by Fowler, he called the man to talk things over.
Fowler says in an email:
Residential zoning is to protect homeowners who reside in their homes from business encroachment. It’s as simple as that. Landlords are not allowed to run businesses from their homes…allowing this is nonsense, a failed experiment, and the ZBA and City Council should put a stop to it.
During that initial phone conversation, Ennis said he spoke about the precarious situation the ZBA found itself in with regards to short-term rentals.
As the law currently stands, short-term rental applications are generally granted probationary status for one year if the landlord meets all of the specified criteria and has had no issues with the police regarding the property.
“The ZBA has courageously administered the often contentious STR cases in a fair and professional manner,” Ennis said in an email to city officials. “The Highlands case was no different from the roughly 200 other cases. We couldn’t treat them any differently than any of the others, which included many neighborhoods across the city.”
Still, Ennis said that after his initial conversation with Fowler, the Highlands resident sent an even more pointed email to city officials, mentioning details of his conversation with Ennis intended to be between two people.
Angered by what he saw as a continuing attack on his integrity and the process by which the ZBA reviews short-term rental applications, Ennis told Patch that he called Fowler a second time and told him “Wha are you doing sending this e-mail?”
Email records obtained by Patch show that after the exchange, Fowler told Ennis he was “obligated” to inform Tuscaloosa City Council Speaker Kip Tyner, Mayor Maddox and the Executive Director of the urban development Ashley Crites, from the language used by Ennis in their earlier conversation. He also asked Ennis never to contact him again.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” Ennis told Patch. “But I took the email as misinformation and was trying to calm everyone down and after trying he sent another email. I called and tried to apologise, and After I was told I wouldn’t be reappointed, I left a voicemail apologizing and he sent another email.”
Fowler’s latest email correspondence with Ennis said the Highlands neighborhood will now be forced to tolerate “intrusion” from business owners operating as short-term rental property owners in their neighborhood, which raises the range of concerns that typically accompany allowing short-term rental properties.
“I was told that some time ago someone advised you to retire, you have done enough for our city,” Fowler wrote. “I second that suggestion.”
While making no apologies for his language in the aforementioned conversation, Ennis explained that the Zoning Board of Adjustments has been handling the complex short-term rental landscape for three and a half years. Meanwhile, Ennis recalled contentious meetings where individuals rushed to the podium, in addition to more than one occasion where council members had to be escorted to their vehicles by police at the end of meetings. .
However, ZBA members have recently found themselves in the unenviable position of having to review short-term rental applications as the law is drafted, despite the fact that the Tuscaloosa City Council is likely to adopt a moratorium on STRs at its next meeting on Tuesday, October 25.
The next ZBA meeting was scheduled for Monday evening, with Ennis not chairing the board, so as not to push the issue of reappointment after he withdrew his candidacy.
It’s also because Ennis doesn’t want to be the chairman overseeing decisions at such a contentious time and on the eve of City Council possibly ending short-term rental applications for the time being.
“I didn’t think it was fair for the neighbors or the petitioners to have a short-term rental decision made by the zoning board and the next day the board declares a moratorium,” Ennis told Patch. “Without the trust of the Council, how could I act? I felt like I was in an impossible position and so I felt I had to withdraw my name so that the other two [candidates] can be considered and therefore I would not be a lame duck making these controversial decisions hours before the Board declares a moratorium.”
Asked about Ennis’s departure from the ZBA, City Council Speaker Kip Tyner didn’t say much other than to express his gratitude for the longtime official and his time with the city.
“The only thing I want to say is that I sincerely appreciate Bob’s 30+ years of service to the city and wish him well,” he said in a brief phone interview. with Patch Monday.
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