Overlay Somebody Else: My Battle With Columbia County Over Property Rights

Friday, May 25, 2012
Evans, GA
By Al Gray

New Year’s Day in the year 2000 did not find this writer worried about the world’s computer systems crashing because of the Y2K or much of anything else. Two new clients and two projects in Missouri – a state-of-the-art hot dog plant and a deli meat production facility beckoned. It was a very lucrative contract that took me away from the Augusta area, as nearly all of them have. A most successful bowhunting season had just been concluded. The parents were still able to take care of themselves. 1999 had been good, but 2000 would be even better. It did not start that way, January 1 pleasantries not withstanding.

Sometime in February, after trudging through 15 inches of snow in St. Joe, MO,  I returned to my motel room just in time to catch a call from my parents. It seems that they had gotten an official notice about an ‘overlay’ zoning ordinance to cover something called the Evans Town Center Overlay District (ETCOD). It concerned them that the county was looking to pass some sort of control over their commercially zoned property on Washington Road. We were not totally surprised, having attended one of the planning meetings for the town center at Savannah Rapids Pavilion.

Actually seeing the map of ETCOD was an eye-opener. It was a gerrymandered map that looked like a headless woman in a dress stumbling like a zombie. Then there was the matter of the text of the proposed ordinance. It banned any store over 30,000 square feet, imposed expensive architectural upgrades, and made plans to completely rework the zoning map via overlay zoning to impose government land use planning instead of free market economics. It was aimed straight at our family, who had decades long plans for a major shopping center to the west of Ronald Reagan Drive. Worse, it would have ruined decades of planning along with previous county officials which included gifted water and sewer easements and providing for a road into a subdivision.

The night of the first Planning Commission meeting, the elite of the Augusta and Columbia County development sector was in attendance. Your scribe had never made a public speech before. Knees shaking from fear and voice quavering, my speech might have gotten off to a disastrous start, but the first order of business was to loosen things up by poking fun at the gerrymandered map. The room exploded with laughter. A key point was made that the map was discriminatory, lacking uniformity of application. The county attorney would later agree, forcing new notices to be sent to everyone in a 3500 acre circle. Up behind the lectern, a transformation took place. The meek accountants knees were still knocking, but the cause had turned from fear to RAGE!

Things have not been the same since.

When the county was forced to make ETCOD a uniform circle, the action resulted in our family gaining scores of new allies against ETCOD. Even one of the chief proponents realized our position because her family’s land was now in the overlay zone! She exclaimed in a meeting. “We don’t want those rules on OUR PROPERTY!” Neither did a lot of folks. When the planning commission decided to ram through ETCOD, two of the commissioners stayed home in fear. The 3 left decided to ram the vote for the ordinance through. The entire room, it seemed, leaped to their feet and shouted “NO!!!!!!” It was the closest thing to a riot that Columbia County has seen in a public meeting in modern times. The county commission appointed a citizen’s committee headed by contractor Ron Cross to work out a compromise. The Evans Town Center Ordinance was birthed eventually, but the baby was a lot trimmer and caused less labor pain.

There were other battles to come. They are best left to another day.

The salvation of our family came in the form of gifts from our founding fathers. The 5th and 14th amendments to the United States Constitution provide each of us, as citizens with guarantees of Equal Protection Under the Law and that we cannot be deprived of property without Due Process of Law. More recently Columbia County implemented Corridor Overlays, Lincoln County did the same, and last year Augusta attempted to enact a flawed Laney Walker Bethlehem Overlay District. In each instance it was a privilege to help fellow citizens being assailed with threats to their rights from overlay zoning.

Pertinent to today’s events, in which the diabolical Agenda 21 plan is infiltrating all levels of government, the Evans Town Center Plan developed by consultants Rosser- Lowe, was even then replete with references to “smart growth” and “Sustainable Development”. You have to remember that Columbia County is a solid Republican County, not a place one would suspect that a socialist agenda could take root in. We have to be constantly vigilant everywhere.

The Evans Town Center Plan was supposedly based upon town centers in Redmond, Washington; Reston, Virginia; and Smyrna, Georgia. A key component of largely defeating ETCOD was this analysis comparing those places with the Evans Town Center. (Article continues below the chart)

ETCOD BATTLE CHART

When one can dissect the planner’s plans and turn the evidence against them, he can win huge victories against the odds, for the truth overwhelms the planners and allies arrive in droves.

A County Commissioner and two Planning Commissioners said that the ETCOD was a “Done Deal”

Well, it came UNDONE.

Thanks founders, for the Constitution. Agenda 21? That’s just another undone deal of our making.***

AG

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Wide Open Records at DCA put Sunshine on Magnolia Trace

Magnolia Trace Under the Magnifying Glass
Thursday, March 1, 2012
Evans, GA
by Al Gray
The furor over the construction of Magnolia Trace Subdivision, a low income housing development funded under the auspices of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA), was white hot back in November of last year. Much was said and written about hidden machinations behind this development, particularly the Columbia County Board of Commissioners’ resolution in support of the development at the apparent prompting of county attorney Doug Batchelor in June of 2010. Ire of project opponents reached epic proportions when it was revealed that Batchelor had worked for the developer, Affordable Equity Partners of Columbia Missouri, or one of its stable of interrelated companies on an earlier project and was the closing attorney when AEP affiliate Magnolia Trace LP purchased the land in the second half of 2011.
Speculation abounded, but truth lies in the documents, to the extent that they are discoverable. This writer prefers to focus on the story the documents tell, so was moved to examine the process by which Magnolia Trace came to be approved for DCA’s tax credit program. The review found that the DCA’s Qualified Application Program was so stunningly exhaustive in its information and filing requirements that very few mysteries would remain, should an examiner look at all of the filings that DCA has. Doing an examination of the required documents was natural and logical.
A Georgia Open Records Act request for DCA to make the Magnolia Trace Application available for inspection and copying was submitted last week, with the review taking place yesterday, Wednesday, February 29, 2012 in DCA’s Atlanta headquarters. Ms. Phyllis Carr, of the DCA Housing Finance Division, graciously coordinated the review, provided the documents, assisted, and answered questions.
The examination was intended to answer these inquiries: 1) Was Doug Batchelor prominently engaged by Magnolia Trace LP in the application phase? 2) Was there active involvement of Columbia County, over and above what has been disclosed, during the application process? 3) What was the nature of the agreement to purchase the land by Magnolia Trace LLP from previous owner DORRA LLC? 4)What realtor(s) were involved? 5)What entities benefited from this transaction and were politicians tied into them more than previously reported?
Beyond Batchelor’s involvement with gaining the favorable county resolution and being the closing attorney for the developers, no other evidence was found anywhere in the 8 inch thick application and supporting documents of his involvement or that of his firm, Hull Towill, and Barrett. The attorney appearing on the option for the developer to buy the property was the Atlanta giant, Smith Gambrell and Russell. VanMatre, Harrison & Volkert, P.C. Of Columbia, Missouri is the attorney of record for the project. Legal fees budgetted for the construction were $52,000, with no distribution among firms cited. Legal fees for land acquisition, where Batchelor is known to have fit in, were set at $15,700. Title and recording fees were a surprising $18,000.
Columbia County’s involvement beyond the controversial resolution endorsing the project was minimal. Most of the preliminary inquiries were done by intermediaries without the project or its owners being named. At December 31, 2010, when the application was due for decision, no issues pertaining to Columbia County remained.
The contract for the purchase of the land was executed March 24, 2010 between Peach Way Holdings, an affiliate of Affordable Equity Partners (AEP)and the owner of the land, DORRA, LLC. The particulars of purchase price, contingency upon DCA approval of tax credits, and eventual closing date have been widely discussed and will not be reiterated here. The contract for the sale shows that the realtor was Sherman and Hemstreet represented by agent Billy Franke. The deadline for closing of March 2, 2011 was obviously missed and was extended. The contract gave the buyer wide latitude to cancel the sale until it had approved and accepted the offer of tax credits on March 14, 2011.
The new information discovered in this review was that in a initial review and determination letter sent to Magnolia Trace LP, dated December 14,2010, the DCA “determined that the Application does not meet the required Threshold requirements of the Application.” The reason cited was that costs were out of line with other DCA developments. Magnolia Trace appealed within the allotted 5 days of the letter.
The tax credits were approved on March 14, 2011, three months before a sister AEP entity, Capital Health Management, Inc. gave Georgia House Speaker David Ralston $5000, so there was no quid pro quo evident in these events.
Overall, the strategy employed by AEP appears to be to internalize as many of the project planning, development, financing and other major cost components of its projects, meaning reduced use of other professionals. This strategy is employed in conjunction with lavish campaign contributions at the state level and to a much lesser extent, the local level, with Rep. Ben Harbin being the key local beneficiary.
Look for future reports here on the broader policy issues presented by this particular financing method for low income housing in Georgia, using Magnolia Trace as an example. The current effort was restricted to addressing local government in the process.No effort was made to investigate the DCA evaluation of this application after the initial rejection, because the reasons cited were costs, not local government factors.
No smoking guns were found in this examination as relate to Columbia County and its officialdom. What was found was a highly-regimented and documented process required by the Department of Community affairs accompanied by a high degree of supporting documentation. The author was and is most impressed, as not many recent reviews have found such accuracy.
The Columbia County Commission can breathe again.***
A.G.

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Magnolia Trace: After The Storm (videos with enhanced audio)

Originally Posted by CityStink
Wednesday Dec 7, 2011
Augusta, GA
By AL Gray
The author, Al M. Gray is President of Cost Recovery Works, Inc., a provider of Cost Avoidance and Cost Recovery for America’s leading companies, businesses and governments desiring Superior Returns.
As we predicted,  there were indeed a lot of fireworks at last night’s Columbia County Commission meeting. Angry residents, mostly from Martinez neighborhoods surrounding the controversial Magnolia Trace subsidized housing development now under construction off Old Ferry Rd, packed commission chambers giving commissioners an earfull.
Jennifer McCray, founder of the opposition group on Facebook: Say No to Magnolia Trace Housing Project gave a very civil presentation that voiced many of the concerns of the residents who were opposing the development and their frustration over being left in the dark by their elected officials. You can view Jennifer McCray’s presentation below:

Other speakers were a bit more theatrical like afternoon radio talk show personality Austin Rhodes. We kid Austin, but he is in the theater. Also later in the video Commissioner Trey Allen addresses some questions and makes a motion to hire outside counsel. Ron Cross remains defiant. See entire Columbia County Magnolia Trace video in two parts below (better Quality):
NOTE: you may be prompted to activate the SilverLight Plugin for your browser. This will only need to be done once.

 

Video Part One

Video Part Two

The whole meeting could have easily devolved into chaos with an angry mob storming the commission chambers with pitchforks and torches, but cooler heads prevailed. Jennifer McCray quickly emerged as the responsible and level-headed leader for the opposition.
At the outset it appeared that all the residents might be able to do was pack the chambers and voice their anger at the elected officials they held responsible for the situation. It appeared that trying to stop the development was a lost cause. However, in the end the opposition won a small victory. Dist. 2 Commissioner Trey Allen made a motion for the county to seek outside counsel to study the possibility of getting an injunction or getting the developers to alter their plans. That seemed to satisfy many residents.
CityStink.net spoke with Jennifer McCray, the main spokesperson for the opposition, and  asked if she was pleased with  the outcome of last night’s meeting and she had this to say:
” Yes, I am pleased that the Commissioners are taking this seriously, and that they agreed to hire outside counsel. I am hoping that now  that they have seen the outcry from the community, they will be more willing to work with us and hopefully begin to build a relationship with the developer to try and find a happy compromise to this situation.”
But others are not so optimistic about the decision to hire outside counsel. Austin Rhodes called it nothing but “window dressing.” Many other citizens are still skeptical of the outcome from yesterday and see it as a “stalling tactic”.  The actions of the commission last night does not halt construction on the Magnolia Trace development. It will be interesting to see who the county hires as outside counsel and how vigorously they will pursue the matter. Or will outside counsel just tell the commission what they already know and stick taxpayers with a big bill. That  seems to be the sentiment of critics like Austin Rhodes.
We asked Jennifer McCray what her group was prepared to do if they are not satisfied with the results from the outside counsel. We asked if the opposition group would file its own lawsuit to halt the development. Ms McCray responded:
“I don’t know that a lawsuit of any kind could stop this. What we will need to find are loopholes that we can crawl through to stop this, or at least change the course. I hope that we can begin a dialogue with the developer to reduce the number of low income families being placed in those units, and instead balance it with elderly or disabled citizens.”
Ms McCray was not impressed with Ron Cross’ attitude towards the citizens at last night’s meeting.
“I was appalled at Mr. Cross’ behavior last night in the meeting. As an elected official, especially as Chairman,  I would expect him to keep his actions and comments as professional as possible. Attempting to bate the crowd with witty comments and outright sarcasm, I personally feel was juvenile and petty.”
Even though opponents did win a small victory last night, this saga is far from over. CityStink.net is working new leads on this story that could bring an entirely new dimension to it, possibly bringing much bigger names into the mix. Stay tuned, we will keep you updated as we learn more.***
*CityStink.net would like to thank Jill Peterson for providing the videos and Kurt Huttar for enhancing the audio.*

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