03/04/09 — Residents speak out against housing plan

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Residents speak out against housing plan

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 4, 2009 1:46 PM

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Kevin Wirhouski, a member of the Rosewood community, addresses his concerns about the proposed Rosewood Townes low-income housing development John T. Bell Realty would like to build in the community at Tuesday's meeting of the county commissioners.

A group of Rosewood residents lambasted Wayne County commissioners for nearly an hour Tuesday in opposition to a low-income housing project planned for their neighborhood.

The gathering at times grew unruly, with audience members shouting out their opinions.

Commissioners listened but said little. The issue is in the hands of the county Planning Board, they later pointed out, and until that board makes a recommendation the issue is not on the commissioners' "table," they reminded the audience of at least 60 people.

Commissioners first heard from the developer of the project, John T. Bell, who also drew the ire of the audience. Bell explained his project and added that he would meet with representatives of the community, but that he did not want to be confronted "by a hundred angry people." After his presentation, he left by a side door in order to avoid the crowd that packed the commissioners room and spilled over into the hallway outside.

Commissioners also indicated a willingness to meet with a small number of representatives of the opponents in a more formal session to further discuss their concerns.

Bell denied an accusation from the crowd that he had refused to attend a community meeting on the issue earlier at Rosewood High School. He said he had not been invited but added that he probably would not have attended if it meant facing an angry crowd "shouting questions all at one time at me."

Bell sought, but failed, to assuage residents' fears that the housing project that would be built just off U.S. 70 would not result in a burden on schools and emergency services or spark an increase in crime.

The audience was orderly for the first 10 minutes of Bell's presentation before the meeting deteriorated into shouted questions from the floor, and loud coughing and clearing of throats as he spoke.

One person shouted at board Chairman Bud Gray, "Speak up, I can't hear you."

In addition, a woman sarcastically said to Commissioner John Bell, who is not related to the developer, "Mr. Bell wake up. I know it is late and this is boring."

Soon after, a Sheriff's Office deputy entered the room and took a position near the commissioners' desk.

At one point, someone in the audience mentioned zoning as a way to handle the issue. There is no zoning in the area limiting development.

Bell has asked the county to sign off on the project so that he can apply for a grant. The grant would come to the county and in turn the county would loan the money, plus interest, for the project.

The board has not acted on the request and has sent it to the Planning Board where it was to have been discussed last month. However, Bell, the developer, pulled it from the agenda at the last minute after nearly 100 people gathered for the meeting.

The Planning Board meets again next Tuesday and as of press time the item had not been placed back on that board's agenda.

Commission Chairman Bud Gray opened the meeting by reminding the crowd that the meeting was not a public hearing on the issue and that no questions would be taken. Rather, he told the audience to submit questions directly to Bell, the developer, or to individual commissioners who would pass them on.

That generated shouts of "We elected you."

Bell, the developer, at first attempted to complete his presentation without responding. However, he finally turned around and answered some questions.

When he finished, he and two associates left through a back door rather than wade through the solid line of opponents stretched across the entrance to the boardroom.

Commissioners moved onto the next item on the agenda as people in the audience mumbled comments about not being allowed to speak and not having their questions answered.

They got their chance to speak during the public comments section of the meeting, during which any speaker can have up to three minutes.

Nine people spoke against the project.

Richard Banks presented the board with a petition he said was signed by more than 1,200 people who oppose the development.

Kevin Wirhouski and his wife, Maria, both spoke against the project.

Wirhouski spoke for about nine minutes as other people yielded their time to him.

He reiterated concerns about crime and decreased property values.

Wirhouski said Bell, the developer, had neglected to mention that residents at the Ashbrooke property he manages and had held up as an example had to be 55 in order to apply to live there. There is no such age requirement for the Rosewood project, Wirhouski said.

Wirhouski said if the project were built, crime would increase. He said Rosewood residents were not opposed to growth, just development that would hurt their neighborhood.

"We want to make it perfectly clear this morning that residents of Rosewood are not opposed to growth," he said. "We are desperately worried, if not scared, that the investments we have made in our property and families will be jeopardized. We are very curious to know if he ever contemplated once building these apartments on the undeveloped land he owns on Country Day Road behind his Garden Walk subdivision."

Rosewood Townes, he said, is "not in harmony" with existing development in Rosewood.

He accused County Manager Lee Smith and the commissioners of already having given their stamp of approval to the project.

"You have got that wrong," Smith replied.

Bobby Holland said he had taken out a loan to make improvements at his home and that the project would cause him to lose 15 percent of its value.

Holland said the county needs to look for projects to bring in tax money and build up the county, not bring it down.

Beth Leeming said she and her husband, who is in the Air Force, moved to the county five years ago. They settled in the Rosewood area for its schools.

She said her husband is close to retiring and that their house is on the market. Mrs. Leeming said the Realtor showing the house told her the prospective buyers lost interest after finding out about the project.

Scott Adams said the county does not need more low-income housing.

"We need progress in Wayne County," he said.

To help secure that will require improving the county image as far as education is concerned, he said.

"We need economic development. We don't need anything to bring it down," Adams said.

Jim Scott questioned statistics Bell, the developer, used to demonstrate that the housing projects do not breed crime.

Scott wanted to know how many of the units were occupied and how long they had been occupied, since that would color the figures.

"All we are asking for is a time to be heard and not have this rubber-stamped," he said.

"We cannot deprive him of his legal rights, but you don't have to sign for the application," Paul Beldon said.