The Walker County Board of Commissioners has voted to approve the rezoning of a 19-acre parcel on Happy Valley Road in Rossville, Georgia, across from Ridgeland High School from agricultural and commercial to residential.
The rezoning is one step in the process for the Gateway at Rossville development project, which would bring a 156-unit affordable workforce housing complex to the area.
The complex is expected to offer 18 one-bedroom units, 90 two-bedroom units and 48 three-bedroom units, as well as a covered pavilion, playground, computer center, exercise room, swimming pool and dog park.
Commission Chair Shannon Whitfield, who came under fire in recent months after he admitted to mistakenly approving the original rezoning request for the development when he was sole commissioner, cast the deciding vote Thursday, breaking a 2-2 tie to rezone the land.
"This is the first time under our new form of government that we've had a split vote," Whitfield said at the meeting. "It is the first time I've had to vote on any matter at all of the board, and I cast my vote to approve this resolution."
Commissioners Robert Blakemore and Brian Hart voted against the rezoning, while Commissioners Mark Askew and Robert Stultz voted in favor of it.
Before casting his vote, Stultz said he was concerned about the county being sued by the developer, the Gateway Companies, if the project was denied.
Gateway sent a letter to the county earlier this month threatening to seek $19 million in damages if Walker County did not issue a building permit allowing the development to proceed. In it, Gateway said it believes the property has been rezoned legally and that it has a "vested right" to develop the project.
Stultz said he consulted with more than one attorney before Thursday's meeting about whether such a lawsuit would have any merit.
"Like it or not, the opinion was that Walker County would be in serious legal exposure financially if this project is turned down," he said. "Possibly millions of dollars put on the taxpayers' back. Wanting to be a good steward of the tax dollar, I just cannot put the county in that level of jeopardy."
Walker County resident Janice Williams said before the vote that she felt Gateway was using the threat of a lawsuit to hold the county "hostage" unless it got to build the development when, where and how it wanted to build it. She laid the blame for that squarely on Whitfield.
"It was inappropriate and wrong to [approve the rezone] the way you did, but what we're faced with now is that if the remaining board members who didn't get a voice in it to begin with don't approve it again, the taxpayers are going to be paying a minimum of a $19 million dollar lawsuit," Williams said to Whitfield during Thursday's meeting. "When the last meeting took place for the citizens to speak about this, before they ever spoke, you booked a spot to be on TV with the developer supporting it. You had no interest in what the citizens had to say about it. Your mind was already made up."
Other residents expressed concerns about traffic near Ridgeland High School, neighborhood safety and the impact of the development on water and sewer capacity in the area.
Paul Paige, who lives in the nearby Mission Glen subdivision, said creating that number of new homes in the area would inevitably increase traffic. Commissioner Hart said he was concerned about that, too.
"Do we add a turn lane or a turn lane and two other lanes? I don't know until we look at a traffic study that encompasses all the developments in the area, not just this development, because when counting all the developments and all the people in all those residences, we are really going to add about half the population of Rossville on three-quarters of a mile of road," Hart said. "That deeply concerns me."
Steve Meyer, the traffic engineer hired by Gateway to conduct a traffic study for the Gateway at Rossville development, said the project would increase traffic in the area but only by a "very small amount."
According to Meyer, about 50 cars will leave the development during the morning rush hour, or around one car every minute.
"The increase in delay per vehicle is not estimated to be more than 15 or 20 seconds," he said. "So with respect to this development, there will be additional delay but it won't be such that this will create Atlanta-level congestion at this intersection."
Now that the property has been rezoned, the Gateway at Rossville development must go before the Planning Commission for preliminary approval of a map of parcels and tracts on Oct. 21. That commission last month recommended denying the rezoning request for the development.
Contact Kelcey Caulder at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.