Board denies River Road variance

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- The Albany Flood Review Board voted 5-0 Wednesday to turn down a petition from the development arm of a local church seeking to use federal tax dollars to rehabilitate homes in the flood plain.

Wednesday's decision effectively ends attempts by River Road Family First Development Corp., a branch of the River Road Church of Christ, to rehabilitate houses along Gaines Avenue so that they could become eligible for federal housing dollars from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Johnny Moton, a spokesman for the group and one of the principals of the organization, said before Wednesday's vote that while the homes were flooded during a disastrous 1994 flood, the homes were untouched by a less severe flood in 1998 and have not been flooded since.

"That, obviously, was a 500-year flood and damaged many, many homes and property in this community," Moton said. "Since that time, these homes have not been flooded and (owners) have purchased the necessary flood insurance."

David Williams, the president of the Albany NAACP and a member of River Road's board of directors, also addressed the Flood Review Board Wednesday and encouraged its members to allow the development corporation to help improve the quality of life of the people currently living in those homes.

"A variance would allow us to help improve the living standards of the people in this neighborhood," Williams said. "Without it, there really is no way to bring the housing up to the proper code."

Federal law requires that before HUD dollars can be spent on a low-income housing development, the project must meet certain building and environmental requirements.

One of those requirements is that if, during the remodeling of the project, the construction costs exceed 50 percent of the fair market value of the property itself, it has to meet all of the standards of local, state and federal laws and ordinances.

Locally, a project like the one at Gaines Avenue, since it falls within the flood plain, would have to be built one foot above base flood elevation.

According to Peggy Haggerty, a city staff member with the city's Planning and Zoning Department, each of the homes that River Road plans to renovate sits anywhere between 2.5 and 5.3 feet below base flood elevation.

River Road sought a variance, or permission to move forward without having to adhere to that particular ordinance, and it was something flood board members said they couldn't, in good conscience, pass.

"I certainly understand that we need more low-income housing, but I'd hate to put the burden of having to live in low-income housing onto people who may have to live in the flood zone and be subject to moving out of their house when it floods," board member Dean Rosier said. "It hasn't flooded in 18 years, or something like that, but it's going to flood again, and it will put a burden on the people."

Board member Carl Pennington said approving the motion for the variance would set a dangerous precedent that could obligate the board or the city in future developments within the flood plain.

"To approve this motion would set a terrible precedent. ... Where would you go from here? You'd have to approve everything that came before this board," Pennington said.

While the board's decision does effectively block River Road's attempt to get HUD dollars through the city to fund the project, it doesn't prevent the development authority from using its own money to renovate the homes, so long as cost doesn't exceed the 50 percent of fair market value threshold.

"That's something that we have the funding to do," Moton told the board. "We'll still do some improvements, because they're needed."

In June, city officials had asked the Albany City Commission to award up to $233,000 in funding from HUD's HOME program, which is administered through the city's Department of Community and Economic Development.

The commission tentatively adopted the proposal, despite the fact that suspended Municipal Court Judge Willie Weaver, who is hired by the City Commission, chaired the corporation's board of directors and Brenda Robinson-Cutler, the former Dougherty County commissioner who remains on probation after pleading guilty to theft in 2006, is its executive director.

The City Commission never took formal action pending a decision on the variance by the Flood Review Board.