By Wendy Reeves, Contributing Writer
As Huntsville’s footprint races toward becoming the largest city in Alabama, Charles “Charlie” Younger reflects on his role in helping lay the foundation for its growth with what is today the fourth largest research park in the world.
Of the many projects Younger was involved with as Huntsville’s city attorney for more than 25 years, one of the most pivotal moments included creating the zoning ordinance that created Cummings Research Park.
“Whatever I’ve done to help people with ideas or information to make some change in community policy, I feel so fortunate to have been able to do that,” Younger said. He’s still involved today, providing counsel to the Industrial Development Board.
Nearly 60 years ago, Younger moved to Huntsville. He is one of five diverse and influential leaders the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber is featuring in this special series in Initiatives. Other contributors include Hundley Batts, W.F. Sanders, Jr., Julian Butler, and Loretta Spencer.
Younger was born in 1932 in Columbus, Miss., about three hours southwest of the Rocket City. In 1961, he was hired as an assistant city attorney to work on the Research Park Ordinance for the City of Huntsville, a move that made the park possible despite the city lacking the resources to buy large quantities of land at the time.
“One of the first questions I was confronted with by then City Attorney Jack Giles was to give my opinion of this proposed ordinance to zone about 4,000 acres of private land that could only be used for research and development,” he said. “There was really no precedent for that in the country.”
Younger learned there were examples of research parks in North Carolina and California, which had involved private or public ownership of land for research and development. He used those as a guide.
“The city planner was a very innovative person,” Younger said. “He proposed that we use performance standards instead of traditional zoning to regulate this land. The question was that a regulation of that type was so restrictive that it would amount to taking the property.”
Younger didn’t think it would be a legal regulation. However, City Councilman Charles Cummings Jr., held a meeting with Younger and City Attorney Giles.
“He said to the two of us – ‘This is so important to the community that we have to do it. I respect your opinion, but this is too important,’ and in my opinion, although the record may show a unanimous vote for the ordinance in March of 1962, I believe the sentiment on the council to pass the ordinance at best was 3-2.”
One hundred percent of attorneys representing the landowners, who were principally farmers, argued against it privately.
“I’m not sure how much of it was on the public record, but I assure you they were all adamantly opposed to it,” Younger said.
Councilman Cummings told Giles and Younger that the council would adopt the ordinance, but directed the attorneys to find a nationally recognized expert, to take whatever time was needed and spare no expense to determine if and how it could work.
“He said if that expert tells us at the end of a year that this is not a valid regulation, then we will repeal it. Then he got up and left the room,” Younger recalled.
Younger had extensive education in planning and zoning and was right out of law school where he had been taught by a nationally recognized professor in the field.
“So I said to Jack, there is no such thing as a nationally recognized expert, so I don’t know what we can do except just go and research the question and try to find a way to defend this ordinance or revise it to where we can defend it.”
Younger says he spent his first year in Huntsville reading zoning cases from every state in the union – state and federal cases. It’s important to keep in mind, he said, that the U.S. Supreme Court first upheld zoning regulations in 1920. The validity of zoning was still relatively new.
“I remember saying to the city council at the end of that year that I felt like I could defend the ordinance, and we tweaked it a little bit,” Younger says. “In March 1963, the city adopted a new comprehensive zoning ordinance, and part of the research park regulations were a part of that. It was modified somewhat from the one introduced in 1961, but here is what I concluded:
“All zoning is based on there being a reasonable demand for usage, so it’s regulated in the community within the foreseeable future. Now that doesn’t mean next year or the next five years or even 10 years. That means for the life of the community,” Younger said.
His justification example included someone going to a fishing community like Ketchikan, Alaska, and taking a large body of land and regulating it solely for cotton gins, cotton mills, and cotton warehouses, he said. That would be patently unconstitutional because it would be unreasonable – there would be no demand in Ketchikan in the foreseeable future for such uses.
On the other hand, the same would be true for Huntsville if you tried to regulate a large body of land for fish canneries, processing plants, or warehouses.
Then came the performance standards for Huntsville’s research park, having to do with vibrations and emissions of sound and radiation, etc.
“As long as you could conform your use of the property in a manner that didn’t harm the neighbors unreasonably, then you could use it for research and development, and manufacturing that is related to research and development,” Younger said.
There was another key component in bringing the new research park to life.
The group who got together to create The University of Alabama in Huntsville Foundation was also crucial to the plan. Younger said the group began to buy up the property from the farmers and hold it for long periods of time, keeping it available for industry.
The park was initially named Huntsville Research Park. At the time, Brown Engineering, headed by Milton K. Cummings and Joseph C. Moquin, was the first business to move in after company leaders purchased a 100-acre lot in 1962 at the end of the dirt road that developed into what is known today as Sparkman Drive. Today the company is known as Teledyne Brown Engineering and still remains an anchor tenant in the park.
Councilman Cummings was a nephew to Milton Cummings, he said.
“I can tell you for sure that we would have no research park ordinance without Charles Cummings Jr., so the name Cummings Research Park should really commemorate Milton and Charles Jr.,” he said.
In the end, the research park was created through the public regulation of 4,000 acres of land.
“There has never been a single acre added to that original boundary, and in my opinion, we implemented the plan by doing what North Carolina and California had done by someone actually taking title to the land and marketing it to users,” he said.
It’s a remarkable thing today, he said.
“It is said that we are the second largest research park in the country,” Younger said. “I would say if we take in the research and development occurring adjacent to the park on Redstone Arsenal, which I think someday needs to be annexed into the city, but if you take that into consideration, clearly we would have the largest research park probably in the world.”
This article appears in the April 2020 issue of Initiatives magazine, a publication of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber.