In-fill developments affecting Columbia County

Developing rental units is unpopular

As new homes continue to be constructed in established areas of Columbia County, the result can have both positive and negative effects on surrounding neighborhoods.

While the concept of “in-fill” development has been around for several years in the county, news of putting 50 government-subsidized rental homes in the midst of an older Martinez subdivision has caused an uproar among neighbors.

Those residents are planning to speak out at tonight’s Columbia County Commission meeting in Evans. They say Magnolia Trace, a “low-income” development on Old Ferry Road, will cause property values to drop, crime rates to increase and overcrowding at nearby schools.

So long as apartment complexes are not included in such in-fill developments, Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle said he is “guardedly optimistic” they won’t become hotbeds for crime.

“There are a lot of rental houses in Columbia County that are not a problem,” Whittle said. “But there are some that are. It just depends on the renter.”

The effect on the school system for such developments is a bit more worrisome.

Magnolia Trace is in the South Columbia Elementary, Lakeside Middle and Lakeside High school zones.

Already, South Columbia Elementary and Lakeside Middle are Title 1 schools, and Superintendent Charles Nagle said Lakeside High is nearing that designation.

To qualify for Title 1, which enables a school to receive federal funding for remediation services, at least 40 percent of a school’s student body must be on free or reduced lunch.

“South Columbia is already the most impoverished elementary school we have” in terms of family incomes, said Nagle.

He added that if all the students at Lakeside High who qualify were to enroll for free or reduced lunches, then it, too, likely would be a Title 1 school.

Nagle said more high-density housing developments seem to be on the way.

The Magnolia Trace property, zoned for high-density development (R-3), sat unused for more than 30 years as neighborhoods and commercial development sprung up around it.

Just down the street from Magnolia Trace, other vacant property is planned for residential development.

Currently under way is Morning Falls, a single-family subdivision on Evans to Locks Road across from Jones Creek. The 26-lot development will have homes starting at $250,000.

Nearby, the county’s planning commission approved Thursday a rezoning to allow for 60 townhouses behind the Kennametal plant on Old Evans Road. Final approval must come from county commissioners.

Apartment complexes Picket Fences, on Old Evans Road, and The Haven, at Reed Creek on Washington Road, also were constructed in recent years.

When builders go into an already established area, they’re often creating subdivisions with fewer lots and higher densities, said county Development Services Director Richard Harmon.

“I think it has its pluses and minuses,” Harmon said.

County Commission Chairman Ron Cross said such high-density, lower-priced housing is part of a new development trend since expensive houses are too difficult to sell and finance since the economic downturn.

Harmon believes such in-fill developments offer an opportunity to beautify some older neighborhoods.

Government officials are looking for ways to require green space by imposing a moratorium on R-2, R-3 and R-3A zonings, which have minimum lot sizes of 7,500 to 10,000 square feet.

By January, Harmon said he’ll likely have a proposal to present to commissioners that would require developers in these zoning districts to include amenities, open space or larger buffers.

“We need to go from barren land and putting houses on it to barren land and adding open space, green space, playgrounds and all these things that really make the neighborhoods look good and attractive,” Harmon said.

On the downside, there’s going to be an increase in traffic and a rise in school populations, Harmon said.

For the school system, it means adding pupils at schools officials thought wouldn’t grow anymore.

Before Grovetown High School opened three years ago, school officials rezoned all the high schools. Part of that rezoning included shifting about 100 students from Evans High to Lakeside High.

The school board believed Lakeside could take the added students because future development in its zone seemed unlikely.

“There’s no doubt that high-density housing ... being developed in areas we already had concluded there was no more room for growth does add a tremendous burden on those schools,” Nagle said.

With the exception of Harlem High, Nagle said every other high school in the system is nearing capacity.

“It’s a shot in the dark when you’re trying to relieve a school and figuring out where the next growth is going to be,” Nagle said. “Once you put your finger in the dike to stop one leak, another one pops.”

IF YOU GO

WHAT: A presentation opposing the Magnolia Trace development is on the agenda for the Columbia County Commission meeting.

WHEN: The meeting begins at 6 p.m. today at the Evans Government Center Complex, 630 Ronald Reagan Drive.

THE BACK STORY

MAGNOLIA TRACE

BACKGROUND: Plans call for 50 single-family rental homes subsidized through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to be built within the Magnolia Trace subdivision in Martinez.

THE SITE: The area is zoned R-3, for high-density single-family residential development with minimum lot sizes of 7,500 square feet, according to county guidelines. The neighborhood will consist of three- and four-bedroom homes between 1,350 and 1,600 square feet, Commissioner Trey Allen said.

OUTCRY: Since residents living nearby have learned of the planned housing, they have expressed fears that the “low income” housing will drive up the area’s crime rate and drive down housing values.

RESPONSE: Columbia County officials vehemently deny claims made by opponents that the development is so-called “Section 8” housing, although they concede that people with home choice vouchers, known by many as “Section 8,” cannot be legally denied from living there.

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