Columbia County commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to hire outside legal counsel to investigate any legal avenue officials might take to “interrupt” construction of the Magnolia Trace development in Martinez.
The motion came following nearly two hours of questions, accusations, insults and jeers from dozens of nearby residents angered that the commission endorsed the “low-income” housing project on Old Ferry Road.
Jennifer McCray, a resident of Petersburg Station, which abuts the Magnolia Trace property, accused commissioners of using her community as “guinea pigs” in their “experiment” with “discounted rental property.”
“If this were poker, I would have to call your bluff,” McCray said to commission Chairman Ron Cross when he said the county could not have stopped it.
Though the commission voted Tuesday to try to stop it, and to inform Magnolia Trace developer Affordable Equity Partners and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs of residents’ concerns, officials said they had to endorse the project or face legal ramifications.
Trey Allen, the commissioner for District 2, which includes Magnolia Trace, said officials were in a no-win situation.
When other Georgia cities tried to halt such developments in the past because of popular dislike, Allen said they were sued and fined by the federal government.
If they had not endorsed it, Allen continued, they again might have faced a federal lawsuit.
Allen said officials couldn’t even inform surrounding neighborhoods of the project without facing a federal discrimination lawsuit.
Missouri-based Affordable Equity Partners arranged with the Department of Community Affairs to receive tax credits to construct the “affordable housing” project, said county attorney Doug Batchelor.
The commission supported that effort with a resolution passed in June 2010.
Though rent vouchers might be available, Batchelor said only a small percentage of renters of homes owned by Affordable Equity Partners in Georgia use such vouchers.
Nearby residents have said Magnolia Trace will lead to an increase in crime, a decrease in property values and further burden an already overtaxed school system.
Commissioners defended the 15-acre development, which will feature 50 single-family homes, to the irate neighbors of Magnolia Trace.
Cross even repeated earlier comments that he believes the project is good for the area, though he voted to approve the motion to seek a legal means stop it.
In recent days, commissioners have noted that homes in the project will have a value of up to $190,000. They also have said that anyone wishing to rent a Magnolia Trace home must first pass checks on employment, credit and criminal histories.
However, during the meeting, Allen mentioned that the Department of Community Affairs only “suggests” that the developer perform such checks. They’re not a requirement.
Last week, Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle said he is “guardedly optimistic” that the presence of Magnolia Trace won’t contribute to a hike in the crime rate for that area, but that he intends to keep a “close eye” on it.
Schools Superintendent Charles Nagle said Monday that such in-fill developments as Magnolia Trace can burden the school system.
Commissioners said that the school board was notified when a rezoning request was issued for that property. That request was made in 1979, when the county only had two high schools.
County Administrator Scott Johnson said his staff’s “first order of business” today will be to find an attorney who can fulfill the requirements of the commission’s motion.
McCray was named as a point of contact to inform her neighbors of the county’s progress.