Walker County Board of Commissioners Chairman Shannon Whitfield cast the tie-breaking vote Thursday, Oct. 14, that will allow developers to proceed with a controversial affordable housing development across the street from Ridgeland High School.
Whitfield aligned with commissioners Mark Askew and Robert Stultz, during the board’s Oct. 14 meeting, to rezone the property from agricultural to residential (R-1) to enable the 156-unit development to proceed. Gateway at Rossville will be across the street from Ridgeland High School on Happy Valley Road.
“I’m sure this project will pass tonight, but I will not support it,” Commissioner Robert Blakemore, who voted against the rezone and represents the Rossville district, said before the vote. “I will stand by the people in my district. I campaigned to be a voice for the people, and that’s what I’ll be.”
Commissioner Brian Hart also voted against the rezone. He cited concerns that half the population of Rossville — roughly 2,000 residents — will live on 3/4 of a mile of road that is currently only two lanes wide. Hart listed other infrastructure improvements that would be needed to support the increased population density resulting from the addition of residents at Gateway and other developments approved for the immediate area.
Askew stated nowhere in Walker County has a larger or greater need for affordable housing than that area. Stultz warned the county could face serious legal exposure financially if it rejected the rezone request.
The developer, in a letter dated Sept. 29, threatened to sue the county for $19 million in damages if Walker County did not issue a building permit to proceed immediately. The Gateway Companies, the developer, asserted 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.
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.
One resident vocalized support for the project while several opponents spoke.
“We know that greater wealth doesn’t mean greater worth,” said Dana Cole, who countered concerns that affordable housing attracts lower quality residents. She said trickle-up economics would provide a financial boost to neighboring businesses, and this type of development does not see increased crime.
Charles Hancock hoped commissioners will not to run from the threat of a lawsuit and reminded them residents will remember how they voted when they run for re-election.
Janice Williams told the developers, “Now we’re being held hostage, where if we don’t do it (rezone) how you want it done and when you want it done without the practical things in place for the water and sewerage and the traffic.” She recommended that the developers wait until the county’s infrastructure can accommodate this level of development so that their project would succeed.
Paul Page, who lives in the Mission Glen subdivision adjacent to the Gateway site, urged commissioners not to rezone the property and to locate it in a more suitable location without so much traffic and a school close by.
Sharon Gregg questioned whether Rossville residents would be able to afford the rents Gateway proposes but acknowledged the need for affordable housing. She urged commissioners to vote down the rezone because residents do not want the development there.
“Somebody needs to listen to the people,” Gregg said. “That’s why we elected you all.”
While most opponents seemed to approach their argument as common sense, Angela Pence dealt Whitfield a blistering critique of his handling of the rezone request when it was submitted the first time.
“Had Shannon (Whitfield) followed the zoning procedure laws instead of denying citizens their due process rights or had he at least followed the comprehensive plan and future land use map he, himself, adopted, then this issues could have been dealt with long ago and saved the citizens and developer a lot of time and money,” she said, adding that the board has firm legal grounds on which to deny the rezone request.
Whitfield has come under sharp criticism after he tabled the second public rezoning hearing on the project Feb. 27, 2020, and rezoned the property Nov. 12, 2020, without rescheduling the second public hearing; Whitfield was then the county’s sole commissioner. The discovery of the error has prompted the county to repeat the rezoning process from the beginning.
The development will consist of three-story buildings that will include 18 one-bedroom units, 90 two-bedroom units and 48 three-bedroom units. 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.