By Paul Gattis
Huntsville’s growth has stretched some city resources to the point that public safety has become strained in parts of the west side of Alabama’s largest city.
It’s a problem acknowledged by the city’s administration but the solution is at least two years away.
Huntsville needs more police officers available in west Huntsville as well as a fire station for faster response times to emergencies – a situation that can be a struggle to address at times with current precinct designs and manpower.
Ultimately, the city plans to establish a fourth police precinct – opening one in the west – and hire more police officers to better cover the city as a whole. Plans are also in the works to build a new fire station in west Huntsville, which city councilman John Meredith said will help drive down insurance costs for homeowners in some areas.
Meredith described establishing a new police precinct and fire station in west Huntsville as his “top priorities” at a city council work session earlier this month. And his hope is that it becomes a reality in 2023.
“The feedback I have gotten (from constituents) since being on the council is the same feedback I had as a private citizen before coming on council,” Meredith said in an interview with AL.com. “And that is we do not have the best of services when it comes to police protection and fire protection.”
He identified the corridor north of U.S. 72 in the Capshaw Road and Old Railroad Bed Road areas as being “just terrible when it comes to fire protection there outside of the five mile of criteria that is set down by the International firefighters Association, which of course drives their insurance is through the roof.”
It’s an area of Huntsville that might not seem as if it’s in the city limits. As the Rocket City’s annexations over the years have essentially left the city of Madison landlocked, the area Meredith described is largely a residential area that’s a stone’s throw from Madison.
It’s also an area where homes on one side of the street may be in Huntsville city limits while those across the street are not.
Meredith and City Administrator John Hamilton said the city is nearing an agreement to purchase land in west Huntsville where a new fire station will be built. Funding for the fire station is expected to be included in the 2022 budget that the council will review and approve prior to Oct. 1 when the new fiscal year begins.
Securing that land is critical, Hamilton said, because a fire station should be strategically located to minimize response times to the area it covers.
“The precinct building for police can be anywhere in that patrol zone,” Hamilton said. “A fire station, there’s very precise little area these to be inside this (coverage) circle in order to do that response times for the area it’s going to cover. We know where that is and we’re in the middle of buying the land now.”
There are similar concerns for police coverage as well. The west precinct for both fire and police is nowhere near west Huntsville. It’s located downtown on Clinton Avenue at Memorial Parkway.
That’s not to say there are no fire stations in west Huntsville or no police coverage in the area. But its headquarters are far from its coverage area.
The police precinct is moving slower than the fire precinct. Hamilton said the city needs to hire additional officers to expand coverage in west Huntsville while not sacrificing police presence elsewhere in the city. A building for the west police precinct will likely be leased rather than constructing a new one. Hamilton compared that possibility to the south police precinct on Bailey Cove Road, which is located in the middle of a shopping center.
“We’ve got to grow the (police) department a little bit to have the people to actually stand up a fourth precinct,” Hamilton said. “So some of that is going on right now.”
The police department will probably redesign its precinct coverage areas when a fourth precinct comes available, Hamilton said, and may include a central city precinct. Smaller precincts will give police officers smaller areas to patrol and, Hamilton said, that could lead to closer relationships to the people in their areas. It could also result in a standing bike patrol in the downtown square area.
Meredith commended police Capt. Michael Johnson, the commander of the west precinct, for being responsive to concerns of his constituents in the western part of the city.
Huntsville, of course, has surpassed Birmingham as the state’s largest city and has a population in excess of 215,000 people. Over the past decade, Huntsville has added about 35,000 residents and the city itself is still growing. At Thursday’s meeting, the city council annexed 424 acres into the city limits in four parcels of land – including its second parcel west of I-65. That is an expansion of Southpoint Industrial Park and won’t be zoned for residences.
But it’s an indication of the demand Huntsville’s growth is putting on public safety services and its continuing sprawl. An example: The 161 acres annexed Thursday at Green Mountain Road and Knotty Walls Road in southeast Huntsville is about 45 miles from the 15 acres annexed Thursday along Bibb Garrett Road west of I-65.
Huntsville’s sprawl is also evident in that it covers about 220 square miles of land while Birmingham, the city formerly the state’s largest, covers only about 150 square miles.
“Let’s call it growing pains,” Meredith said about the strain on city resources in his west Huntsville district. “I don’t think (that description is) necessarily flippant. I think in some regard, some folks would say it’s a very generous description, but generosity is a good thing.”