Wednesday, October 18, 2006

FRONT PAGE STORY>>Townhouse plan splits city council

E-mails have been sent back and forth between Jacksonville planning commissioners over a controversial rezoning issue that would allow 35 townhouses to be built on west Main Street. The commission turned down the request, but the developer appealed the decision to the council, which has approved the request twice over the past two meetings.

The rezoning must get three approvals to be valid. It will come before the Jacksonville City Council on Thursday for the third and final time, and the vote may cost the city a planning commissioner. Commissioner Emma Knight told the council Oct. 4 that the commission had already turned down the rezoning request. She said she would resign if the measured passed through the council.

“I sell upscale homes,” she said. “These townhouses are not upscale. I don’t think this is the best plan for Jacksonville. We do not need these.” “I will resign, mayor, if this passes,” she said. Since that meeting, planning commissioner Mark Stroud has e-mailed Knight and the other commissioners to ask permission to speak at Thursday’s council meeting “to clarify misunderstandings around our discussion and vote taken at our July meeting and approved in our minutes at the August meeting.”

Stroud states that the media had left an impression that is inaccurate. Commissioner Bart Gray, who has served as chairman of the panel in past years, told Stroud in an e-mail that “I believe the Planning Commission records speak for themselves. The council has been active in this issue and I believe they are an informed body.”

Gray went on to write that he believed Knight had the right to represent her personal viewpoint at the council meeting “in the same manner that Bob Stroud (Mark’s father and an alderman) had the right to come to the Planning Commission meeting and represent his personal view.”

Knight told Stroud in an e-mail that he certainly has her “permission to speak…and you probably should speak to the city council and explain to them the minutes that they have read.” In a recent interview with The Leader, Knight said she stands by her plans to resign. She calls it a trust issue. “The council entrusted us to make decisions, and now they don’t trust us.” She said when “you don’t trust someone you should replace them or have them go away.”

She plans to go away. “I’ve got too many other meetings and commitments,” she added. Knight said that the commission covered all the issues involved or connected with this rezoning—traffic, wetlands, drainage, flooding density of dwellings, along with the number of local residents demanding “that we protect them.”

“It was not a hard decision, not a close decision,” she said. The commission turned down the rezoning request by a 5 to 1 vote at the commission’s September meeting. The developer, Tim McClurg, then immediately appealed the commission’s decision to the council. The request to approve three acres on the south side of West Main, just west of Emma Street, was approved on first reading in late September by the council and then approved again Oct. 4.

At both meetings, the chamber was packed with residents in opposition to the rezoning. “I’ve been on the council for 26 years and have always supported the Planning Commission and I don’t plan to stop tonight,” Alderman Marshall Smith said at the Oct. 4 council meeting. Smith was one of four aldermen who voted against the rezoning request. Also voting against the request were aldermen Terry Sansing, Gary Fletcher and Avis Twitty. The remaining six aldermen—Kenny Elliott, Kevin McCleary, Reedie Ray, Linda Rinker, Bill Howard and Bob Stroud—voted for the rezoning.

The issue was brought before the council in late September after the Planning Commission turned it down. “We need this type of upscale housing,” Alderman Stroud said at the Oct. 4 meeting, before introducing the ordinance for its second reading. Fletcher, a contractor by trade, said, “Starter homes sell for $150,000 to $160,000. These townhouses are not upscale homes.”

The developer has said that 1,500-square-foot townhouses would sell for about $166,000. Sansing, who is against the project for a host of reasons, including that two other townhouse projects in the area did not pan out and have become rental property, said that the council needed to listen to the people.

Also on the council agenda:
•Fire Chief John Vanderhoof and Mayor Tommy Swaim will discuss a federal grant for the fire department.
•Aldermen will vote whether or not to waive competitive bidding on janitorial services for the community center.
•The council will vote to appoint Addie Gibson to fill the unexpired term of Fred West on the Jacksonville Housing Authority.