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Lee leaders mull senior village

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

LEESBURG -- On the surface, the proposed $5 million-$6 million Forrester Senior Village development appears to be just the kind of shot in the arm the stagnant Lee County economy needs.

Figures released by Flint Ventures, one of the partners in the proposed development, indicate the project would generate $400,000 in immediate water and sewer tap fees, more than $50,000 a year in water and sewer usage fees and property taxes in the neighborhood of $80,000 a year.

Additionally, the 75 or so one- and two-bedroom apartment units would put struggling construction crews in the community to work, and the development's tenants would eventually give the nearby Publix supermarket, CVS Pharmacy and Heritage Bank businesses currently in various stages of development a built-in base of potential customers.

Yet, a contingent in the community, one of whom ominously predicted "this project could be the beginning of the end of Lee County as we know it," has openly questioned the wisdom of allowing the development, chiefly because its co-developers have expressed their intention to apply for federally funded tax credits.

"A lot of folks, when they hear 'tax credits,' they think of government-subsidized housing," Josh Thomason, a development manager for Atlanta-based Peachtree Housing Partners LLC, said Thursday. "But what we're applying for is based on federal legislation that was passed in 1986 under President Reagan.

"What the federal government decided then was that HUD was doing a horrible job of providing affordable housing. The tax credits incentivize private builders to develop quality affordable housing."

That issue aside, Lee County leaders -- some privately and some openly -- acknowledge they must contend with a number of concerns before they vote on Thursday night whether to approve a rezoning application that would allow Peachtree, Cordele-based Rea Development Co. LLC and Flint Ventures to move forward with the project.

THE PROJECT

Forrester Senior Village is projected to be built on 14 acres of land about one-third of a mile off U.S. Highway 19 at Forrester Parkway. The easternmost boundary of the proposed site would be adjacent to an existing mobile home park, a fact that has lessened the possibility that it would be used for commercial development.

The land on which the project would be built is currently zoned C-2 (general business district), and the development partners are seeking a rezoning to R-2 (multi-family residential). The rezoning is being sought even though the county's zoning regulations list "residences for aged persons" among the permitted uses in C-2 districts.

The senior village would be restricted to persons 55 and older, and to qualify for the tax credits that come under the guidelines of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, 15 percent of its units must be rented to people with incomes at or below 50 percent of the area's median income with the remaining 85 percent rented to people with incomes at or below 60 percent of the AMI.

What those figures mean in Lee County are individuals with income of $20,300 (50 percent AMI) to $27,420 (60 percent) would qualify.

"As a matter of fact, the average current Lee County employee who retired from his position would qualify to live there," Smithville/Chokee Commissioner Dennis Roland points out.

Another member of the county's Board of Commissioners notes that misinformation is spreading about the dollars and cents that would go into the proposed development.

"A lot of the gossip that's been circulating in the community has labeled this development 'low-income housing,' and that's wrong," Commissioner Rick Muggridge, in whose Century District the proposed project would be built, said Thursday. "This is moderate-income housing, not for people living on government subsidies. My mother, before she passed away, would have fit into the requirements for living here.

"I don't know how I'll vote on this issue yet because I want to remain open-minded and hear every opinion in the community. Having said that, though, I like the idea of a managed, affordable housing complex for senior citizens who have worked hard all their lives and want a clean, safe place to live. They deserve that."

LEGAL WORRIES

Another major concern facing the County Commission has to do with the fact that past commissions denied a similar zoning request by Billy Boggus, Albany-based Burt Development and other entities, leading to a 2005 lawsuit, and later discouraged developer George McIntosh from following through with plans to build a similar development.

Others, however, say those comparisons are of the apples-to-oranges variety.

"It's a different situation," Pace Burt of Burt Development said Thursday. "In all honesty, I know a little about this, and it's not something we're that concerned with. If anything, allowing this development is going to increase the property value in that area, and I'm certainly in favor of that.

"Our situation was a different one. They're talking about building by that trailer park, which is perfect use of that land."

Attempts to contact McIntosh, who approached the Commission with a proposal to build a similar development directly off U.S. 19, were not successful.

Lee County Attorney Jimmy Skipper will play a major role in legal interpretation of applicable laws as the commission considers the rezoning request. He said he'd rather not talk about the issue before the county makes its decision.

"I really don't think it's appropriate for me to discuss a matter that is pending before the County Commission," he said.

One local builder said he's not opposed to affordable housing, but he's surprised that the county is considering a project that makes it available. John Wright said Thursday Lee County has done everything it can to discourage construction of affordable housing through its utilities and impact fees.

"To put a meter in Calloway Lakes, it used to cost $150," said Wright, who has been building in the county for 19 years. "The last time I checked, it was $3,600. If you get a small lot in Lee County now, by the time you pay water, sewer and impact fees, you're looking at around $8,000. We have to pass that cost on to the consumer, but they're talking about allowing this group to offset their costs with tax credits.

"If they allow this project to move forward, I feel like they'll be opening a door. And I've always felt 'if you can't beat them, join them.' It's just amazing to me that a county that has done everything it can over the last few years to discourage the construction of affordable housing is now considering a project that will allow it."

APPROVAL PENDING

As they consider the Forrester Senior Village application, Lee officials are taking a closer look at a zoning map that many say is flawed. For instance, the "commercial corridor" (designated C-2) drawn up along U.S. 19 runs approximately 500 feet deep on the west side of the busy highway, while the zoning designation runs almost 3,000 feet on the eastern side.

The proposed development would be located some 1,700 to 2,000 feet east of U.S. 19, and as Flint Ventures principle Jim Bacon points out, "It has no access to 19 and no frontage on the highway."

Flint, which is operating on this project as a 50-50 partner with the Oakland Partners development group that is behind the expansive Oakland Development in the southwestern corner of the county, bought the proposed senior village site in 2005 and has roughly 400 more acres of land on the market.

"One of the things we really want is to maintain a good working relationship with the county and our elected officials," Bacon said. "That's something we don't take lightly, because we're citizens of this community, too.

"We feel, and we hope the commission agrees, that zoning ought to be a guide, not something that's chiseled in stone. We think they should take a look at each opportunity that's out there and make a decision based on its own merits. We in no way intend to be a part of a project that would be detrimental to the county."

Lee Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander said earlier this week that staff, in the person of Southwest Georgia Regional Commission Planning Director Paul Forgey, had recommended denying the request. The Planning Commission, however, had voted 3-2 to approve it.

"Paul based his recommendation on the position that past commissions have taken," Alexander said. "And I know there is some concern over the court cases that go back several years where the commissions at that time drew a line in the sand. Mr. McIntosh has been in my office, and he's indicated he's going to be watching this issue closely.

"Still, there are those who consider the current zoning map we're using to be incorrect. We're working with the county attorney, trying to decipher minutes from meetings back in 2001 and 2002 to straighten it out. We won't know how this turns out until the commission votes, but I do know this developer (Peachtree/Rea) has a reputation for doing quality work."

DECISION TIME

Ultimately, the future -- at least in the short-term -- of the Forrester Senior Village will be determined by the five-person Lee County Commission. Most contacted are playing their cards close to the vest, but a couple say they see a lot of good in the proposal.

"This project, in so many ways it just works," Muggridge said. "It's the perfect thing to go onto that property beside the mobile home park -- which I applaud, by the way, for the improvements they've made -- and behind an important commercial development. I visited one of Mr. Rea's sites in Cordele unannounced, and it's a place I would gladly move next door to.

"Also, the customers of our Utilities Authority are now being asked to pay 100 percent of debt that, some of which, was accumulated through countywide infrastructure development to spur economic development. They need more customers; this project will bring more customers."

Roland, meanwhile, said he's concerned that some have suggested the commission would make a poor quality-of-life choice.

"I'm not saying how I'll vote Thursday, but I've lived in Lee County 57 years, and I'd never do anything to jeopardize the quality of life here," he said. "It's interesting that people who oppose this project keep talking about 'government subsidies.' Well, when Rep. Ed Rynders got us the $2 million for our library/conference center, when the Obama administration offered us stimulus money, when the Department of Transportation said they were prepared to give us money to work on our roads, we didn't snatch our hands away and say 'no government subsidies' then.

"And I certainly don't want to send out signals to the surrounding counties that, 'Hey, send your folks over here to spend their money at our Wal-Mart, but when they get through, make sure they go home.'"