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Uncovering A Nightmare for Walker County in Zoning Debacle
Who knew what, and when did they know it?
The easiest way to understand this story is by watching this video:
On November 12, 2020, with just 50 days left in his term as the last sole commissioner of Walker County, Shannon Whitfield held his regularly scheduled public hearing. First on the agenda was an order of old business. A rezone request which was tabled he said. It was the rezone request brought by the Hutcheson estate on behalf of Gateway Company. Gateway is the developer with plans to build a 156 unit multi-family housing development through the use of the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program on Happy Valley road across the street from Ridgeland High School.
Commissioner Whitfield stated the parcel was to be rezoned from A-1 to R-2 and provided the dates of the two legally required public hearings he said were held on February 20th and 27th earlier in the year. He then accepted the rezone request as presented and signed it.
A closer look has revealed that to be inaccurate. The first public hearing was indeed held on February 20th at the monthly planning commission hearing. The planning commission recommended the commissioner deny the rezone request.
The second public hearing was scheduled for February 27th and I happened to be at the meeting waiting for it to begin. Commissioner Whitfield announced:
“The developers of this project had reached out to our office and had requested that we hold off and postpone this public hearing until they could come forward with additional information on this project. And at that time, we will re-advertise this. And we will let the public be given notice. And we'll follow this up with another public hearing forthcoming in the weeks ahead to be determined once they come back with additional information. But at this time, there is no action on that and there's no need for us to go to the time of letting people speak on that because they're not here to present their presentation. And we will do that all at one time in the future.”
The problem is the second public hearing was never rescheduled. It was never re-advertised. The second public hearing did not take place as required in the county code book shown below.
The commissioner did hold an "informational meeting" on the traffic concerns related to the project on 10-22-20 at the civic center. The video is on the county YouTube page. This was not a public hearing, it was not advertised as such nor was it advertised according to the requirements for public hearings and no minutes were taken during the meeting. Representatives from the developer were not present at the informational traffic meeting.
He signed the rezone in violation of the county zoning ordinance as well as the state zoning procedures law or ZPL. A second public hearing was required and did not occur. Perhaps worse than that, the action constituted a blatant disregard for the public trust, the laws of the state of Georgia and the oath of office he took and would again take in just a few short weeks.
I cannot see any way this could have been a simple oversight.
Consider the situation at the time on 11-12-20:
The new board would be sworn in little more than a month.
The proposed development was deeply unpopular in the surrounding communities.
The planning commission recommended denial of the rezone request.
Commissioner Whitfield had never diverged from the recommendation of the planning commission
If a public hearing were held the argument against approving the request would stand on firm legal footing, as the future land use map only allowed small scale multi-family.
Given that the new board would be unlikely to overrule the recommendation from the planning commission, much less do so without a legal and proper second public hearing, the best and perhaps only chance for the rezoning to be approved and the development to move forward was with the actions the commissioner took on 11-12-20.
A Simple Mistake?
To believe that this was a simple oversight one would have to believe that the planning director forgot or did not know the procedures he had been working with day in and day out for the previous four years.
To believe that this was a simple oversight one would have to believe that the county attorney, who drafts the legal documents associated with this action, did not know or did not remember the fact a second hearing was required.
To believe that this was a simple oversight one would have to believe that the County Clerk who records and prepares the minutes did not remember the 2-27-20 meeting.
To believe that this was a simple oversight one would have to believe that Gateway company and their legal counsel did not object or even think it odd that the county was not following the legally required procedures by not having a second public hearing.
To believe that this was a simple oversight one would have to believe that all of these individuals and Commissioner Whitfield did not remember the 2-27-20 meeting AND/OR were unaware that a second public hearing was never rescheduled and never occurred.
Based on the video evidence from the meetings, the record from the agendas and minutes of the meetings, and the situation surrounding the rezoning decision, I struggle to believe this was a simple oversight.
The question I have is who knew what and when did they know it?
What Happens Now?
It seems likely that one way or another the zoning decision approved on 11-12-20 will be rendered null and void. Once that occurs it is anyone’s guess what will happen. Lawsuits, investigations, and possible charges is my prediction.
Walker County approved $19 million in tax exempt bonds(pass-through debt, no taxpayer liability) recently on behalf of Gateway for the project on Happy Valley road. Lacking the proper zoning for the project can’t make for a smooth bond offering.
This is the exact opposite of what anyone wanted to happen in Walker County. It is to avoid debacles like this that I advocate so strongly in favor of open government and transparency. After years of mismanagement Commissioner Whitfield and his team straightened out many things. Yet, this major violation that could cost the county dearly is the culmination of a string of actions for which little regard has been shown for the law or the public trust. The pattern is undeniable.
It is for this reason the best path forward in Walker County now is without Shannon Whitfield as chairman.
If his actions were somehow a series of mistakes then they are sure to be impacting and very costly, both for him personally and for the county as a whole. Walker County citizens and the board of commissioners need trustworthy leadership and cannot afford the risk that this could happen again.
These words appear in the Constitution of Georgia: "Public officers are the trustees and servants of the people and are at all times amenable to them."
“We have established that this is no empty phrase, but an obligation that is enforceable in a court of law. Public men and women, above all others, must be of good faith. Neither facile excuse nor clever dissimulation can serve in the stead of duty — faithfully performed. Because public men and women are amenable ‘at all times’ to the people, they must conduct the public’s business out in the open.”
-Former Georgia Chief Justice Charles Weltner
Agendas and Minutes Links
2-27-27 Public hearing packet which contains the planning commission application for rezone and the denial by the planning commission.
3-12-20 packet with 2-27-20 public hearing minutes
11-19-20 regular meeting packet that includes the minutes from 11-12-20
State Law Reference Links
OCGA § 36-66-4. Hearings on proposed zoning decisions; notice of hearing; nongovernmental initiated actions; reconsideration of defeated actions; procedure on zoning for property annexed into municipality