Blue Ridge, Ga. – Councilmembers Mike Panter and Nathan Fitts are sharing their reasoning behind a recent controversial vote on a proposed housing project presented by the Beverly J. Searles Foundation.
The following are direct statements from Panter and Fitts regarding their votes and opinions on the matter.
From Councilmember Mike Panter
Why I Voted No
To the Citizens of Blue Ridge, I have been asked multiple times sine May 11th, why I didn’t support the rezoning request and the affordable housing development with the Searles Foundation.
Let me begin by saying I do and have always supported the need for affordable housing in the City of Blue Ridge and Fannin County. However, just because you support something doesn’t mean you should automatically vote for something that is going to affect the citizens for the next 50 years. You must be able to support why you believe that this project is best for the city residents. Especially when over 100 citizens who live within a mile of the proposed project have signed a petition against the project.
When you stop and think about an additional 171 rental units being built and 200 additional automobiles daily, between two schools, on a heavily traveled road that has no traffic lights, turn lanes, street lights, sidewalks, roundabouts, any type of traffic study, or a 5-to-10-year strategic growth plan, it doesn’t make sense. You say to yourself there has to be a better location.
This project was started by the Haights on January 28, 2021. The variance application was not applied for until February 26, 2021. It was briefly introduced to the Council April 13, 2021 without any detailed information. It was presented to the zoning and planning board May 2, 2021 and to the council for final vote May 11, 2021. A lot of people didn’t understand that this was a land swap instead of a traditional purchase and sell. In my opinion both boards should have at least 30 days to research and verify their information before voting.
I was the only council member present at the one-hour meeting. Unlike other members of the audience, I was not allowed to speak or ask any questions because I am an elected official. Therefore, the majority of questions I would have asked were not addressed. One member of the Planning Commission was 30 minutes late to the meeting but still felt that they had enough information to make a motion to approve this 20 – 30-million-dollar project.
Is the Searles Foundation the right partner/developer for our city residents if we can only choose one?
- Who are the partners that will be involved in the Searles Project?
- Could the project ever be transferred or sold to another entity? What type of entity?
- Who manages the project? Fairway Management Company? Haight House, LLC? Other?
Even though our current water and sewer is in good shape, the sewer plant was built 23 years ago and is currently in the design phase for a 5-million-dollar rehab. Can it handle another 171 apartments within the Mineral Springs area over the next 3 years?
What effect does President Biden’s 213-billion-dollar proposal for infrastructure and housing have on this project? Will the developer only allow current Fannin County citizens or will they be required to open up the development to qualified candidates within the state, southeast or country?
The following is a list of questions I have for the Foundation and Zoning Board.
- If we are going to have only one development within a 2-3 mile radius of the City, is this the best location?
- Will the current residents be forced to move?
- What is included in the rent? Water, power, cable?
- It has been stated that the Searles Foundation minimum rent is $600/month. The majority of residents are currently paying less than $300/month. Does their rent continue to stay the same?
- What out of pocket expense will the city residents and tax payers be responsible for?
- How do individuals with low to no income currently living in the woods behind businesses, cars, etc. afford the Searles Foundation project?
- What is the time period for construction?
- Will all of the trees be removed on the 15 acres?
- Will a center turn lane be added? If so when will the road be widened?
- Will sidewalks, traffic lights, streetlights or roundabouts be added?
- Who will be our new city residents? And can we have the answer to this question in a contract?
- Offering $40 thousand for road modifications at the end of Mineral Springs will by no means cover the expense. A traffic light and a roundabout would cost in excess of $100,000. Who pays the extra expense? City or County?
- Why is the Housing Authority pushing a 50-year contract when the current residents will be moved to the Searles project? There would be no need for this contract.
- Would the existing housing units be owned by the Haights and turned into personal rental income or torn down and developed into a trailer park?
- Can the Searles Foundation give us a plan or contract of what the current housing authority units will look like in 10 years?
These questions summarize why I requested an additional 2 – 3 days time before I was required to vote. How could I just vote Yes? I believe all of these questions need to be answered before a vote can take place which will affect our community for the next 50 years.
From Councilmember Nathan Fitts
I am extremely disappointed in some of our city elected officials and with the denial of the zoning for the affordable housing at the council meeting last week. To answer some of the outstanding questions I’ve heard and saw I wanted to outline the factual information as a council member. I know there have been some questions on why we didn’t table the vote for the rezoning.
First of all, I don’t know why we would have tabled the vote as that was one of the main objectives of the council meeting that was on the agenda. I am the council member who made the motion to APPROVE the zoning contingent upon all of the conditions that had been recommended to us by the Planning Commission and Zoning Board previously who had already heard the request. At a recent previous zoning hearing, the mayor actually violated the city’s meeting policy by allowing it to be tabled and when the question was raised at the meeting about the legalities of being able to table it, I was not willing to participate in anything other than what I knew to be the law and policy in place. Additionally, I had legal counsel who had advised me that we had to vote. Unfortunately, our city attorney was not present and was not available to provide legal advice at the time, so I made the motion and proceeded by the policy that was set for such which is that we were to vote immediately following the hearing. That rule is outlined on page 4 as Item 5 in the Meeting Rules of Procedures. Additionally, all council members had all of the information to review ahead of time. As a matter of fact, all of them had talked with the developer personally, got questions answered, and had from the zoning hearing time frame to the council meeting date to research and investigate any matters regarding this zoning request so a decision could be made the night of the hearing as required. There have been rumors that this hearing was “rushed” or “pushed” through in a matter of a couple of weeks, and I can attest to the fact that such statements are untrue. The amount of time for it was longer than what was required by law and this has been being discussed for many weeks. If there are any proven facts to the contrary, I have not been privy to it and have no knowledge of such.
What is most disappointing, and heartbreaking is that one of the biggest opportunities in the history of this county, in my opinion, for the local community was lost. The need for affordable housing is real and needed in a bad kind of way. The chance for us as the city council and as the community as a whole to help the “locals” was there and stripped away due to political and personal reasons in my opinion. I might also add from knowing all of the facts and information surrounding this project as a whole, I feel that was the reason and reason alone that the mayor voted no for the project is out of spite as one of the parties involved which is ashamed in my opinion. This was not about her and anything political this was about doing what is needed in the area and doing the right thing for the people, something the mayor has lost sight of over the last few years it seems. The reason the mayor publicly gave as she voted no was because she wished she just had some more information and had some numbers for the sewer. I know my jaw probably dropped open when that was the reason given because the mayor is or should be very aware of the city’s infrastructure information as it was her herself who just a couple of weeks ago quoted the exact information at a city council meeting and also as the previous zoning hearing for another developer that she was now acting like she didn’t know anything about and had questions regarding. Well for the record, the question regarding the sewer, was information that she knows and all of us know and have known. As I made the statement at the meeting, the sewer upgrades the city has to do regardless and already have planned to do. Below is a snapshot of our master infrastructure needs for both water and sewer which you will see both of the items in question on that the mayor didn’t know anything about or have recollection of. Perhaps she forgot this spreadsheet even existed because the Mineral Springs sewer and Aska pump station have been on a list for repair/replacement for quite some time and even talked about publicly in March when this information was provided to the public. The mayor herself even spoke about it at the infrastructure meeting we had in April but now a month later for this situation she knows nothing about it. Very interesting. I would highly suggest going back and watching the meeting or reading the minutes of the meeting on infrastructure and you’ll see her concerns stated for the denial were already addressed and she’s fully aware of that. Please listen to the meeting of the April 21, 2021 meeting and compare it to Tuesday night’s council meeting. One would think it was two different Mayors speaking at each meeting. One sounds highly educated about our sewer/water and the other she sounds like she has not clue as to what is going on with it and is confused with questions. So, what was the real reason??? Is she really just totally out of the loop and neglecting her job duties as CEO of the city or did she just use that as an excuse and play dumb so she could vote against it? Now that everything is being researched and dissected and she’s been caught in lie after lie, I would think she would have learned some valuable lessons, however, it doesn’t seem she has. Each of you can do your own research, watch and listen and you can make your own conclusion.
The water and sewer departments are both departments in which I am over so I can speak with firsthand knowledge of these items. These have been planned to be done and are slated to be completed by 2022 regardless of if this project had gotten approved or denied. The Aska pump station already has a task release number and will be applied for through grant at the beginning of next year. The cost is around $1,000,000. The Mineral Springs storm water problem is estimated at $500,000. It too is slated to be completed and corrected by 2021, but we will know more actually next week. Matt Smith, the city’s engineer from Carter and Slope, said that next week we will run another camera and he thinks the lines will have to be replaced as they are too small. He feels the high end of the project is $500,000. As stated, this is all in the works to be completed according to the plan by 2021 and is and has already been planned. The grant for the Aska Pump station would actually benefit from showing that we could have been adding more customers to this area. It shows we will have more ability to pay for these upgrades. Regardless of the project going forward or not, these two things HAVE TO BE DONE! There is no way around it.
In my opinion whether it be that used for the excuse or something else, there was going to be an excuse to vote no because of the underlying motif behind the denial. I had calls from people prior to the meeting trying to get what the true facts were about this project and the developers behind it as people were stating that they were called from the mayor personally giving information and her opinion on the project that were not even factual and were discrediting parties involved and doing what she’s been known to do best which is creating “chaos” to push her agenda. In addition to a personal vendetta towards some of the parties involved she also has been at odds with and has a strong dislike for the director of the housing authority for years. As a matter of fact, the housing authority as of this very minute still doesn’t have a signed coop agreement from the city that has expired, and they’ve been working diligently on getting done for months and months if not well over a year as I’ve been involved the last few months. Every time we get everything done and ready to vote and sign off on it, there’s another hurdle thrown up or excuse to delay it even further. Again, all power plays and personal dislikes which are putting the citizens and public’s best interest in the crossfire which is shameful and disgusting. For those people who are living in the tents around town, in campers and in tractor trailers, the homeless, and those living with family members because they can’t find housing and affordable housing at that in this area, they are the ones that this effected the most. This could have made an impact on their lives and it was an opportunity lost and only for the reasons for the mayor to flex her muscles for political and personal vendettas. I want to thank all of those people who have put so much time and effort in trying to get affordable housing in this area. It is needed way beyond what most people who live locally even realize. I hope that we can all do our part to help those in need and that there will be a new solution for affordable housing at some point in the near future for the residents of this area.