Dozens of Walker County, Georgia, residents marched down Main Street to the courthouse Thursday evening to call for the resignation of Commission Chairman Shannon Whitfield, who they believe illegally rezoned property without their input.
They believe that while serving as sole commissioner, Whitfield approved the rezoning of a 19-acre parcel across from Ridgeland High School in Rossville from agricultural and commercial to residential without properly holding the second of two required public meetings related to the request.
Some residents, like Kisha Parker of the nearby Mission Glen subdivision in Rossville, believe Whitfield never wanted feedback from residents about the property and pushed it through for "his own reasons."
"The rezone was not done legally. It did not fall through the cracks as a lot of people have been told. You're very meticulous about your meetings, so there's no way that it fell through the cracks just this one time," Parker told Whitfield after asking him to resign during public comment at Thursday's commission meeting. "It's ridiculous what's happened and how we've just been pushed aside. The community, not revenue, should be the priority."
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Other residents who spoke at Thursday's meeting also expressed concerned about what the rezoning might mean for the community surrounding the property.
Gateway Co. is the developer and plans to build a 156-unit multifamily housing development on it through the use of the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. Residents said they fear the effect those low-income housing units might have on their property values and worry about what adding that many new residents will mean for schools and traffic.
"We've brought up several concerns that we have with that area. Nothing has been done about any of them," Parker said. "It gets ignored repeatedly, but then you pile on more housing and more traffic to that already dangerous intersection at the school. We're worried about our community and about the kids, and we're very sad that you're not doing anything about it."
Walker County Planning Commissioner Elliott Pierce called for an investigation into Whitfield at the meeting.
"We can't really trust you at this point," Pierce told Whitfield on Thursday. "We need an investigation."
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Whitfield acknowledged he made a mistake in the process of rezoning the property but denied allegations the project was intentionally pushed through without allowing the public a chance to offer input. Instead, he said it was a simple advertising mistake.
For the rezoning to be approved, two public hearings are required. The first one was held Feb. 20 at the monthly planning commission hearing. The commission recommended Whitfield deny the rezoning request, and a second hearing was scheduled for Feb. 27. It was tabled at the request of the developer. In October of last year, an "informational meeting" was held instead.
Whitfield on Thursday said the October meeting was attended by "40 plus" people to discuss traffic concerns related to the rezoning for "probably an hour and a half." Invitations were sent to nearby residents at Mission Glen subdivision, he said, and others in the Happy Valley Road area. The meeting was not, however, advertised as a public meeting as required by local zoning ordinances.
Later, on Nov. 12, Whitfield officially signed and approved the rezoning request as the sole commissioner.
"There was a period of delay after that so when the developer was ready to move forward on the project we put it on our regular agenda. I did not think about going back and looking to see if we had advertised that, so it did not get advertised. When it came on the agenda, I approved that zoning. That was a mistake," Whitfield said. "I messed up. I publicly messed up and made that mistake."
Whitfield said the rezoning request will now start over in its entirety and that the public will be notified at each stage of the process.
"Nothing will happen until this goes through the process again entirely," he said. "If anything immoral or illegal was done here, I'd resign. But this is one step that was missed completely accidentally."
The county switched to a board of commissioners in January of this year. Whitfield chairs the panel, which has four other members.
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While residents said they are happy something is being done to allow them the chance to share their opinions about the project, Pierce said he worries it is too late for the county to right the "colossal wrong" that was done when the rezoning was originally granted. Walker County has approved $19 million in tax-exempt bonds on behalf of Gateway for the project that he said were set to close Aug. 18, and he questioned what would be done about those now.
Commissioner Whitfield on Friday said the county facilitated the bond process for Gateway through the Walker County Development Authority but has "no financial liability at all."
"Neither the county, the development authority nor our citizens or anyone locally has any financial liability. Worst case scenario, if everything fails, is the bond owner takes a haircut," Whitfield said. "If it comes up that we decide not to change the zoning, then we may have some liability. That's the only way. That doesn't mean we're going to just push it through, though. That's why we want to be transparent about this process. With our board of commissioners now in place, it is important to me that we let them make the decisions on this and that we let everyone be part of the process."
The first reading for the rezoning is set for Sept. 16 and the second reading is set for Oct. 14.
Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.