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.
A Walker County educator has received the Phil Pickens Leadership Award.
Angie Ingram, special education director for Walker County Schools, was selected for the Administrator Award for 2021. Ingram oversees the school system’s Positive Behavior Supports Initiative (PBSI) for all students; PBSI helps students have positive reactions in their behavior to various circumstances in daily lives.
A news release from the school system praised Ingram for always putting special education students and their needs first and foremost in her work at the school system.
She has been instrumental in bringing the Practice Assessment Exploration System (PAES) labs to the school system. The labs allows students with a variety of disabilities to learn hands-on activities that will be transferrable to a workplace setting, according to the news release.
She has also introduced the Project Search program, an international program that provides students with different abilities a chance to work in a local business in three different internship positions. The desired outcome is that students will be placed in a job at the end of their last year in high school.
In 2007 she became one Georgia’s first principals to be named a High Performance Principal by Gov. Sonny Perdue.
The Parent Mentor Partnership, a Georgia Department of Education Family Engagement initiative that places a parent of a special needs student in the school system to act as a liaison between the parents and the school system and to offer resources to parents, awards the Phil Pickens Leadership Award. Pickens created the partnership and dreamed that every school system in Georgia would have this liaison in place.
Whitfield County educator Erin Arledge won the Phil Pickens Leadership Award for Parent Mentors for 2021.
The Walker County officials remind residents that October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, a perfect time for families to give a forever home to a lucky dog.
The Walker County Animal Shelter is “full of amazing dogs seeking wonderful families who are looking for a companion to love,” according to a Walker County government news release.
Shelters and rescues are at capacity. Adoptions are at an all-time low, and pet surrenders have been high this year, straining resources at shelters, officials said.
Go to https://walkercountyga.gov/residents/animal-shelter/ to view the adoptable dogs and cats or meet them at the shelter at 5488 North Marble Top Road, Chickamauga.
Throughout October, a shelter walk by appointment only. Call the shelter at 706-375-2100 to schedule an appointment.