Hundreds pack Columbia Co. Commission meeting, new investigation promised

By: Katie Beasley Email
By: Katie Beasley Email
Martinez housing community

Neighbors are upset about the 50-home low-income housing community being built in Martinez. (WRDW-TV / Nov. 29, 2011)

News 12 at 11 o'clock / Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011

EVANS, Ga. -- Tempers flared in Columbia County Tuesday night over a low-income neighborhood being built in Martinez.

Hundreds packed a commission chamber, many to voice concerns about the development and try to put a stop to it.

For the last few weeks neighbors living near the new Magnolia Trace rental home project have been vocal about their disagreement with the low-income neighborhood. Tuesday night they had their chance to take their concerns directly to commissioners.

Nearly 300 people packed the room and many of them had heated opinions against Magnolia Trace. After weeks of complaining, it seems they may be making some progress.

It was standing room only as Columbia County commissioners heard from neighbors.

"I think it's wonderful, the way the citizens come through and were here tonight expressing themselves," said Sharon Bell, who lives just houses down from the development in Petersburg Station.

Many neighbors say the 50 homes on 15 acres will raise crime, drop home values and strain schools.

"You as our elected officials were there to protect our best interest and it is alarmingly clear that you have no idea what our best interests are," said Jennifer McCray, another homeowner, before commissioners as the audience applauded.

The $130,000, three-and-four-bedroom homes are considered low income. The developer has been granted tax credits from the state Department of Community Affairs to help lower rent.

Since the land is already zoned for this, commissioners did not have to approve it, but they did endorse it in 2010.

"But you approved it," yelled a member of the audience.

"We did not approve it," answered Commission Chairman Ron Cross.

"The hell you didn't," the man yelled back.

"We endorsed it," exclaimed Cross, as the crowd erupted.

Voices were raised as neighbor after neighbor spoke out against Magnolia Trace.

"I'd rather it not have been that heated, but people are mad and when you get mad, a lot of times tempers flare," Bell said.

Cross told the crowded room that they thought it was a good project for that area when they were looking at the plans.

"In too little, too late fashion the county citizens have been told there is not now and never really was a way to stop this development. If this were poker, I would have to call your bluff," McCray addressed commissioners.

But Commissioner Trey Allen opened a window of hope, introducing a motion to hire an attorney to look closer at stopping construction.

"I am recommending that we hire an outside counsel to investigate the possibility and review the legality of stopping the Magnolia Trace development," Allen said.

Commissioners unanimously agreed to also forward all concerns to both the DCA and developer.

"They're going to start tomorrow morning with this procedure, so maybe if they work with the contractors we can get a better resolution to it," Bell. said

Allen said he regrets not asking more questions about the project.

"Had I known what I know at the time, I would have," he said.

For some neighbors, it's progress.

"... Feel like, you know, hey -- we were here tonight and they did listen, so I'm very thankful for that," Bell said.

News 12 also spoke to Sheriff Clay Whittle. He's very concerned about Magnolia Trace and says typically they see an increase in calls to neighborhoods like this one.

"Any small area like that, that jams people into a very small confined space, tends to create problems. It concerns me, it concerns members of my staff. All we can do right now is watch ... very carefully," said Sheriff Clay Whittle. "This could be a positive neighborhood if it was done right, but there's things already that I'm seeing that concern me."

The county administrator says work will start first thing in the morning to talk with an attorney and begin investigating their options.

There were possibly more supporters of Magnolia Trace at the meeting, but only one woman was brave enough to speak out. She told the crowd she is a renter in Columbia County and said there is a need for housing of this type.

Commissioners say the development will better the community and give housing options to low-income professionals like teachers and sheriff's deputies.

Potential renters will have to qualify to live in Magnolia Trace. They must make less than $40,000 a year and pass both a criminal background check and a credit report.


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