MRE tries again to turn GA White Addition commercial
The Huntsville Planning and Zoning Commission this month sent a clear message to the residents of at least one established neighborhood in the city: The “highest and best” use of your land is not your family home but a new fast food restaurant.
And those who are trying to fight city hall found that the investors asking the city to rezone the neighborhood are also among the city appointees who would rubberstamp the request.
The planning and zoning commission was the first stop for residents of the G.A. White Addition earlier in July as they fought to prevent local land speculators from forcing their residential-only neighborhood into a “management” zone that would allow commercial.
For the White Addition, bounded in part by 11th Street and Normal Park, that would mean living next to commercial eyesores and more — much more — light pollution, noise, auto and pedestrian traffic, trash and transients.
Micah Slaughter, Robert McCaffety and Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Eric Johnston — who form the investor group MRE Invesment Properties, LLC— owned seven total lots in May when it amended deed restrictions and now, with recent purchases, owns eight lots. Hoping to develop these lots as commercial properties, they’re trying once again to change the character of the White Addition, 60 lots of modest homes built in the Cold War era.
Unfortunately for homeowners who live there, the neighborhood sits on real estate that almost everyone agrees is the “gateway” to Huntsville. Its location across the street from existing fast food restaurants and a chain grocery store means to some, including the planning and zoning commission, that commercial is the White Addition’s destiny, long overdue.
MRE’s argument has always been that the highest and best use of the White Addition is commercial, home to retailers that would pay property and sales taxes to the city — unless the Huntsville City Council gives them some sort of tax incentive to locate here, a popular tactic with this Council’s majority.
In 2012, MRE hinted they had Chick-fil-A on the hook. This time, MRE isn’t saying what commercial properties they hope to lure in.
Four years ago, MRE asked council to override the residential-only deed restrictions, but council opted not to attempt to rezone the neighborhood in violation of its deed restrictions. By law, City Council and the planning and zoning commission don’t enforce deed restrictions, and they also have no authority to change them.
This time, though, MRE has engineered an amendment to the deed restrictions without the knowledge or permission of several of the subdivision’s other homeowners. This happened with the cooperation of some White Addition homeowners using what other White Addition homeowners say were “shady” tactics.
MRE’s Bryan attorney, Steven Allbritton, defended the move, telling the planning commission at a July 21 public hearing that the zoning change “is consistent with the betterment of the community as a whole.” And, after more than an hour of sometimes emotional testimony in opposition, the planning and zoning commission unanimously agreed.
MRE investor and planning commission Chairman Johnston sat out the vote on the sidelines, but MRE’s opposition charged that that hardly mattered. In fact, when one speaker, Scott Hornung, pointed out that Johnston was an investor, acting Chairman David Anderson gaveled him down — until City Attorney Leonard Schneider advised Anderson to let Hornung and the others speak freely.
The City Council will make the final decision, after holding at least one public hearing and, if it follows the city’s charter — not a given with this council — after two readings of the zoning ordinance.
Whether MRE’s amendment would hold up to any legal challenge seems to hinge over the definition of “majority landowners.” MRE’s “majority” is based on one vote per lot rather than one vote per owner, which is how their opposition interprets the deed restrictions. Using MRE’s interpretation, the owner of multiple lots — like MRE — has multiple votes, and homeowners like Steve Covington, who owns one lot, has only one vote.
MRE and other landowners signed affidavits supporting the amendment to the deed restrictions, which MRE filed in May at the Walker County Courthouse.
This is not in dispute: MRE didn’t contact all the homeowners in the subdivision to inform them of the proposed change in deed restrictions, and MRE did not provide all of them with the same ballot the so-called majority presumably signed. MRE, by its own admission, stopped contacting landowners once it had affidavits from the owners of a “majority” of White Addition lots.
Some homeowners discovered that their neighborhood deed restrictions had been changed when they received a notice of the July 21 planning commission’s public hearing. Others received the MRE “ballot” in the mail after MRE had already amended the deed restrictions. Some received no word at all until other landowners informed them.
Huntsville attorney Lanny Ray, a former City Council member who does not own land in the White Addition and who has not yet been retained by landowners, cautioned planning commission members nevertheless that they should not “count on these affidavits being valid” because of the manner in which the voting was conducted.
“If you’re think these amendments (to the deed restrictions) are valid, you should not,” Ray said. “There was no vote.”
Dalene Zender, a real estate agent and former City Council member who owns a rent house on Pecan Street, described the process MRE used to change the deed restrictions.
“Here is my ballot, post marked June 14 — over a month after the affidavits were filed on May 9. How could that constitute a valid vote?” she said.
Landowners who had been left in the dark requested to see the signed affidavits — “assuming that there are any ballots signed by these folks” — but MRE denied them access on three occasions, Zender said.
Zender also said some of the affidavits were signed by people whose names don’t match the records of White Addition landowners on file at the Walker County Appraisal District.
Affidavits supporting the amendment to the deed restrictions cannot be considered as the votes required by the deed restrictions, and the “majority” the deed restrictions requires to amend the deed restrictions is based on the commonly accepted concept of one landowner, one vote — not one vote per lot, she said.
“They have incorrectly apportioned (votes) by collecting multiple affidavits from the same property owners based upon the number of lots they own,” Zender said.
MRE collected four affidavits from Pct. 4 Walker County Commissioner Jimmy Henry; two from the Christian family; four from the Blackard family; three from the Humphrey/Tinsley family; and seven from Johnston, “the chairman of this commission. Yes, you heard me correctly. Seven. He also happens to be a partner in MRE,” she said.
Zender took the the commission to task for putting an action item on the agenda to approve MRE’s request on the same night it was taking public input on the matter, which suggested the hearing was a sham and the decision a fait accompli.
“I can’t speak strongly enough as to the shady nature of this proposal. It is galling to read an agenda that schedules a hearing for public input as Item 4 and then have a consideration for a vote as Item 5. This lets everyone here know that the chairman and fellow investors in MRE have already determined that it is worthy of a vote, regardless of what the public input is. How, in good conscience, can you commissioners review your packets and see your chairman giving himself seven votes to change the restrictions and still allow this to come to a vote? It baffles me that Chairman Johnston, in light of the facts, is still determined to use the zoning commission to bring this change about,” she said.
Zender urged the commission to vote against or table action on MRE’s request until residents could follow an appropriate process. MRE has until the end of 2016 to amend deed restrictions, she said. “There is no rush.”
Lot owner Steve Covington and others supported Zender. Covington said MRE did notify him about the proposed change to deed restrictions but asked him to pick up a ballot because MRE “was trying to save on postage.” That and other aspects of MRE’s process “still smells so fishy to me,” he said.
Covington had heard other “fishy” things about the alleged vote.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard people have been paid money to sign the amendments — $500. Again, maybe it’s not illegal, but it just doesn’t smell right,” he said.
Pecan Street resident Janice Lawrence said she and her family had intended to move out of the neighborhood before the zoning issue came up. But, she said, “I agree that this was handled very inappropriately. It smacks of cronyism. It smacks of a very small group of people trying to screw over some others.”
Allbritton objected to any characterization of MRE’s deed restriction process as “shady.” He said there was no homeowner’s association to contact, and his clients believed it was “unrealistic” to think they could persuade residents to attend a meeting to discuss changes to the deed restrictions. He didn’t comment about Covington’s concerns that MRE paid for votes.
Several speakers questioned the motives of the “majority” landowners who spoke in favor of MRE’s zoning request.
“The other thing you’ve got to look at is motive,” said attorney Ray. “Everyone who stood up here and talked in favor of this has a very vested financial interest. They bought lots knowing they were residential only, and they paid a per lot residential price. They’re about to flip it per square foot. We’re talking about millions of dollars’ profit.”
Judy Hornung said her Pecan Street home, where she and her husband raised their children, has been “a place of peace in an unpeaceful world.” MRE was once again a threat to that peace and safety.
“These people (MRE) never lived here,” she said, “(but) I have watched property being bought up by this group, and I’ve watched the property devalue and go down because they’re not spending any money (to maintain it), and I don’t think they’re even trying to get people of value to live in our neighborhood. They’re already hurting our neighborhood, and it saddens me. The only good in this situation is financial gain for a very few.”
The White subdivision is, as speakers at the planning commission’s public hearing noted, the “gateway” into the city from Houston, Dallas and Bryan-College Station. Many of the homes were built in the 1950s and many are occupied by an socio-economically and ethically diverse group. Among these homeowners are renters — students, law enforcement officers and young professionals.
And some of these homes are deteriorating, investor Slaughter said.
“I can’t think of a better way to upgrade that area than to convert this to a management district,” he said. “So I would really encourage you guys (planning and zoning commission) to make that right decision and let’s get this done.”
Scott Hornung pointed out, during his remarks to the commission, that Slaughter himself owned the deteriorating homes to which he referred.
Apparently anticipating claims that the change to commercial would hurt property values, Slaughter said MRE had researched property values on Hickory Street, where MRE owns lots, after a motel and an apartment complex were constructed across the street. Property values remained virtually unchanged, he said.
Opponents who spoke at the July 21 public hearing countered that there was plenty of retail space available in prime locations in Huntsville and that it was in the best interest of Huntsville to maintain established neighborhoods of affordable housing. They said it wasn’t the role of government to determine the “highest and best use” of land owned by private citizens. And they argued that a residential neighborhood at Huntsville’s “gateway” is more appealing to visitors than a strip of fast-food restaurants.
After the hearing, however, planning and zoning commission members immediately sided with MRE.
Acting Chairman Anderson and commission members didn’t acknowledge homeowner complaints about MRE’s tactics or their fears for the stability and safety of their neighborhood. Only commission member Debra Durda acknowledged the unease with which the home-owning residents said they view the future of their neighborhood if MRE prevails.
Commission member Leroy Hilton and others discussed the inevitability of a commercial fate for the subdivision. “The highest and best use is commercial,” Hilton said. “When the price is right, the neighborhood will go commercial.”
But Durda seemed to be shaming White Addition landowners for their selfishness in taking the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) stance against MRE’s interests.
“Commercial is best for the overall community,” she said before the unanimous vote. “That concept is something that is really lost in our country and in our community these days. Everybody focuses on what’s best for them, and they forget there’s an entire community to be taken into consideration.”