The developer of a controversial affordable workplace housing complex in Rossville is threatening lawsuits and will seek $19 million in damages if Walker County does not issue a building permit to proceed immediately, two weeks before the property’s scheduled rezoning hearing.
The Gateway Companies, the developer, asserts the property has been rezoned legally and that Gateway and the owner of the property, the Hutcheson family, have a “vested right” to develop the project, according to the demand letter from the Gateway’s law firm, Coleman-Talley. A developer with a vested right has the right to build on a property regardless of subsequent zoning changes, and the county is barred from claiming improper zoning.
“If my client is forced to file a lawsuit to get the building permits to which it is legally entitled, it could unfortunately have drastic, sweeping consequences for Walker County beyond this Project,” the letter states. “There would be ‘no zoning’ in Walker County and every past property owner who approached the County would be free to develop his or her property without restriction.”
A response from Walker County Government acknowledges receipt of the ante-litem notice concerning the Gateway project.
“It would be premature for the County to weigh-in on the merits of their counsel’s claims, as Gateway has an active zoning request to be decided by the Board of Commissioners on October 14,” the county’s letter states.
The letter is dated Sept. 29, one week after the Walker County Messenger reported that former sole commissioner Shannon Whitfield, now chairman of the Board of Commissioners, notified the developer that the property was zoned residential two weeks before he rezoned it in the commissioner’s meeting to allow construction of 156 units of affordable workforce housing.
Whitfield has come under sharp criticism after he tabled the second public rezoning hearing Feb. 27, 2020, and rezoned the property Nov. 12, 2020, without rescheduling the second public hearing. The discovery of the error has prompted the county to repeat the rezoning process from the beginning. The Board of Commissioners Oct. 14 is scheduled to conduct the second public hearing on the rezoning request.
The demand letter is a marked change in tone towards the community since Josh Mandell, president and chief operating officer at The Gateway Companies, spoke Sept. 13 at a public information meeting and then appeared with Whitfield on Judy O’Neal’s “Night Talk” program on UCTV to discuss the project.
“We believe this was a valid rezoning, and we think this was done properly, but we also think if we are going to play the long game here, we ought to do this in a way that is the most open and friendly and best-foot-forward way to be in a community that we want to be in for a long time,” Mandell said when asked about repeating the rezone process.
Two weeks later the company’s demand letter states the county would violate the Fair Housing Act and Gateway’s due process and equal protections, and Gateway is preparing for “no less than four lawsuits” against the county, of which two would be in the Northern District federal court. Because Walker County does not have a valid zoning map or a valid land development ordinance, the letter says, Gateway “is entitled to a building permit as a matter of right without further zoning or plat approval.”
“My client(s) hereby request the County to: 1) declare that there is no zoning preventing the development of this project, 2) remove this from the zoning calendar as it is not required to be rezoned, 3) issue building permits based on the plans that have already been submitted, and 4) identify any impact or building permit fees that must be paid so my client may promptly tender the fees,” according to the letter.
The letter refutes the opponents’ argument that the development would exacerbate existing traffic problems surrounding the intersection of Ga. 2 and Happy Valley Road, explaining that rezones were issued for a commercial development and construction of 700 single-family houses in that area. The letter explains why Gateway contends project opponents have no standing to appeal Whitfield’s rezoning of the property.
The letter threatens damages “in excess of $19 million, not including attorney’s fees” after spending roughly $725,000 in market studies, as well as funding, legal, architect, civil engineering and design fees. Gateway staff have spent hundreds of man-hours on the project.
The Walker County Development Authority issued $19 million in bonds for the project before the rezoning misstep’s discovery.
The Gateway at Rossville development would consist of three-story buildings that would include 18 one-bedroom units, 90 two-bedroom units and 48 three-bedroom units, and amenities would include a covered pavilion, playground, computer center, exercise room, swimming pool and dog park onsite. The proposed development would be on Happy Valley Road across the street from Ridgeland High School.
Rental rates will be structured for households in the $26,055 to $47,100 income bracket, with rents anticipated to be $760 for a one-bedroom, $910 for a two-bedroom and $1,050 for a three-bedroom unit. Mandell has insisted the project is not Section 8 housing as some people may think.