Rossville residents are trying to coordinate a town hall meeting with Walker County Board of Commissioners Chairman Shannon Whitfield a week after they marched in downtown LaFayette and called for his resignation; meanwhile, Whitfield has scheduled a town hall meeting about the controversial affordable workforce housing development that sparked their outrage.

More than 20 residents participated in the march Aug. 26 and later that evening addressed Whitfield during the commissioners’ meeting about the county’s failure to follow the legal process for rezoning that has prompted the county to restart the process for Gateway at Rossville, a 156-unit development across from Ridgeland High School. Whitfield acknowledged the mistake and denied attempting to ram through the project without public input.

“The citizens want to be heard,” Elliot Pierce said. Residents are prepared to pay to rent the Walker County Civic Center for a moderated meeting so that they can discuss the development and other issues that concern them with Whitfield. The other county commissioners would be invited to participate as well.

Pierce said the meeting Rossville residents are trying to schedule is separate from the information meeting the county has scheduled Monday, Sept. 13, in which the developers will discuss the project; residents want to know about the history of county talks with the developers of this project and with Healthy Foundations.

The county scheduled the Sept. 13 meeting “due to renewed interest and inaccurate information being spread in the community” about the development, according to a Sept. 2 Walker County government news release.

At the Nov. 12, 2020, Walker County commissioner’s meeting, then-Sole Commissioner Whitfield acted on a previously-tabled request from the Hutcheson family on behalf of the developer, Gateway, to rezone the 18.85-acre parcel from agricultural and commercial to residential (R-2).

“The development would consist of multiple three-story buildings to include 18 one-bedroom units, 90 two-bedroom units and 48 three-bedroom units,” the news release stated. “In addition, there would be a covered pavilion, playground, computer center, exercise room, swimming pool and dog park onsite.”

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, according to the news release. Gateway will conduct credit and criminal background checks on all prospective tenants.

Healthy Foundations is currently fundraising to build a 374-acre campus near Gilbert Elementary on South Burnt Mill Road in LaFayette, which will include a healthcare/counseling center, independent living area with supportive services, workforce and youth development opportunities and a veterans village to serve area service members’ behavioral health and housing needs. This development stirred controversy among some parents of Gilbert Elementary students and residents.

History

Pierce, a member of the Walker County Planning Commission, pointed out the rezoning process error in a column he published on his Facebook page.

The Walker County Planning Commission conducted Feb. 20, 2020, the first public hearing and recommended denying the request.

The county’s planning and development staff — citing from Jan. 1, 2018, through Jan. 1, 2020, 15 traffic accidents near the property — also recommended denying the request.

Whitfield, on Feb. 27, 2020, said that the second hearing would be postponed at the developer’s request and that another hearing would be scheduled, legally advertised and allow time for public comment.

An informational meeting Oct. 22, 2020, at the Walker County Civic Center addressed traffic concerns about the project, with Whitfield noting Georgia Department of Transportation data confirmed “an existing traffic problem on Happy Valley Road.”

Between 7-8 a.m. and again between 3-4 p.m., roughly 1,000 vehicles pass through the intersection of Ga. Highway 2A and Happy Valley Road daily, he said at the Oct. 22, 2020, informational meeting. The meeting was not a public hearing, was not advertised according to the requirements for public hearings, and no minutes were taken, Pierce said.

The second hearing was not rescheduled.

At the Nov. 12, 2020, meeting Whitfield stated that the required public hearings were held Feb. 20 and Feb. 27, 2020. He said the matter had been tabled at the Feb. 27 meeting.

“We are bringing this back up and taking action on this now, so we will approve this as submitted,” he said Nov. 12, 2020.

Pierce has said he does not believe the rezoning was a mere oversight or procedural error because so many people are involved in the process for them all to forget the lack of a new second hearing.

Many residents in the area opposed the development because of the increased traffic it would bring. Within the last year, the county also approved a planned unit development of nearly 500 houses, to be built over the next five to seven years, at the corner of Happy Valley Road and Battlefield Parkway.

The preliminary plat approval for the development was on the Aug. 19 agenda for the Walker County Planning Commission; the planning commission granted the developer’s written request that consideration of the preliminary plat be extended until Thursday, Oct. 21.

Gateway’s multi-family housing development would utilize the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program.

Gateway currently manages more than 14,000 multifamily housing units across seven states, including Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, according to the county’s Sept. 2 news release.

Catherine Edgemon is assistant editor for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga., and the Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga.

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