WARNER ROBINS — Two undersized soccer goals with tattered and torn nets stand in an empty lot on Tabor Drive, the grass between worn.
Across the street, there is a brick apartment complex with a well-kept exterior and trimmed lawn. Through the trees, passers-by can see just around the corner to boarded up apartments on the left, and farther down the road to partially burnt-out and apparently vacant apartments on the right.
The scene is typical in northeast Warner Robins, just west of Robins Air Force Base, where run-down and decaying properties co-mingle with apartments and houses that residents try to call home.
Once the site of Camelot apartments, the empty lot is the result of a city effort to clean up a blighted area of town. In April 2008, Warner Robins City Council authorized the purchase of three foreclosed apartment complexes, including Camelot, in an area of Tabor Drive plagued with vagrancy and crime. By the end of the year, the buildings had been razed and green space remained.
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Despite the action, there isn’t an approved plan for the property or surrounding neighborhood, one of the most blighted in Warner Robins. Over the years, the city’s approach toward redevelopment in the area — bounded by Green Street, North Davis Drive and Ga. 247 — has been inconsistent and even questionable.
Along Tabor Drive and throughout the surrounding area, several current and former property owners gave The Telegraph examples in which the city was disingenuous and in some cases misleading.
— A bank president says a city-imposed building moratorium prevented the bank from selling its property at fair-market value.
— A mortgage lender’s attorney believes city officials acted in bad faith regarding the supposed purchase of his client’s property.
— A mobile home park owner feels left in limbo after he was told years ago the city wanted to do a land swap that never materialized.
— A Fayetteville man blames the city for millions of dollars in losses after officials shut down renovations to his mobile home park.
In some cases, placing blame is difficult. But the result is a stifling of development in an already declining neighborhood across the street from Middle Georgia’s most powerful economic engine.
And there is no immediate change in sight.
Moratorium ‘put in place to actually stop the redevelopment’
For then-Mayor Donald Walker, the question wasn’t whether the city would be able to purchase the Tabor Drive apartment complexes — it was when.
He made sure of it.
On Jan. 4, 2007, City Council approved a building moratorium. Initially enacted for 120 days, the moratorium covered the area north of Vickie Drive, east of North Davis Drive, south of Bargain Road and west of Georgia Avenue, Walnut Street and Chris Drive.
Its purpose, according to the ordinance, was to allow the city time to review a redevelopment plan to effectively deal with concerns about the effects of vacant buildings — including violent crimes, drug crimes, fire hazards and vagrants.
But the moratorium had an unstated use: to assist Walker in negotiating the purchase of the three apartment complexes, known as Colonial Arms, Kenwood and Camelot apartments, said Gary Lee, who was appointed executive director of the Warner Robins Redevelopment Agency in June 2007. Walker died in September 2009.
“It needed to be there because people were trying to purchase those properties, and we needed those properties to be, to be — nothing can be done with those properties while we were negotiating and trying to obtain those properties,” Lee said.
As a result of the building moratorium, two other potential buyers were unable to obtain the required permits and cancelled their contracts on the properties, said Thomas L. Arnold, president of Hawkinsville-based SunMark Community Bank, which foreclosed on the apartment complexes in October 2006.
Both potential buyers offered SunMark $350,000, Arnold said. The first contract came Jan. 3, 2007, the day before City Council approved the building moratorium, he said.
In May 2007 — a month after City Council extended the building moratorium for an additional 180 days — the city offered SunMark $250,000 for the property, which the bank declined, Arnold said.
The bank’s second contract came in December 2007. Although the building moratorium expired in October, that prospective buyer, represented by Warner Robins-based Wellston Realtors, also terminated the contract because it was unable to obtain the necessary building permits, Arnold said.
“We applied, and (the city) would not issue the building permits because we were told there was a moratorium on improvements,” said Ronald Rowland, a broker with Wellston Realtors. He said he did not recall the exact time frame of the potential sale.
City Attorney Jim Elliott said he would “certainly hope” nobody was disingenuous about the moratorium’s expiration date, but he acknowledged there was some confusion.
“When the moratorium expired, it expired. I think there was some perception, I know, among some residents that it was still in effect long after I knew it had expired,” he said. “How that happened and why that happened, I don’t know.”
Wellston Realtors represented investors from Florida who wanted to remodel the apartments and rent them out, Rowland said.
But that wasn’t going to work for Walker, Lee said.
“He didn’t want that same element to go back in there, Mayor Walker didn’t. He didn’t want that element. So he set a moratorium on that area so that we could try to obtain as much as we possibly can,” Lee said. “It was put in place to actually stop the redevelopment of the blighted properties that were there.”
SunMark sold the 3.45 acres of property to the city — which later deeded the property to the redevelopment agency — on April 21, 2008, for $300,000. Warner Robins spent an additional $76,705 on asbestos abatement and demolition of the apartments, according to city documents.
Warner Robins Mayor Chuck Shaheen, who took office in January, said he recalled some information about the SunMark sale.
“I don’t know why the council put the moratorium on it when the bank had a buyer for it,” he said. “Maybe they could have fixed it up and used it.”
Shaheen said the city shouldn’t inhibit someone from selling a piece of property by putting a moratorium on it.
“I got a problem with that,” he said. “But I wasn’t privileged to all the information and the facts.”
City Councilman John Williams said using a building moratorium to assist the city with buying the property was “the only way to do it.”
Without the building moratorium, the city would have piecemeal development, he said.
“It’s just to remove blight,” Williams said of the council’s motivation to buy the property.
Councilmen Tom Simms Jr. and Bob Wilbanks said they were not aware of the motive behind the moratorium.
The city hopes to redevelop the area across from Robins Air Force Base, so it made “good sense” to buy the property, Wilbanks said. The city wants to “grab those things” that are eyesores and safety concerns, he said.
But when given the opportunity to purchase other properties in the area, the city has not followed through.
‘Your clients have been acting in bad faith’
Just around the corner from the former Kenwood apartments is another vacant and boarded up apartment complex on Tabor Drive that city officials once were interested in buying.
In early 2009, officials planned to use more than $600,000 in federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds to buy, demolish and redevelop vacant and distressed properties along Ignico and Tabor drives.
The targeted addresses were 214, 216 and 218 Tabor Drive and 117, 119 and 127 Ignico Drive, according to a Telegraph article from April 2009. That plan was abandoned in December 2009 because the city did not have the staff to administer the funds and meet program requirements, said Sherri Windham, Warner Robins Community Development Block Grant program director.
Atlanta-based mortgage lender Allison Equities Inc., which owns the Tabor Drive properties, alleges city officials acted in bad faith for months regarding the supposed purchase of its property. The apartments and vacant lots are valued at $377,900, according to the Houston County Tax Assessors Office.
In December 2009, Allison Equities Inc. sued the city and several of its leaders in Houston County Superior Court alleging they violated the state Open Records Act. The lawsuit accuses the city of failing to produce all documents regarding its plan for the company’s properties.
The city denies any wrongdoing.
Correspondence included in Allison Equities Inc.’s complaint document the company’s difficulty in dealing with and receiving information from the city.
In an Aug. 5, 2009, e-mail to Elliott, attorney John S. Smith wrote that he tried to contact Walker on behalf of Allison Equities Inc. for more than two weeks with no response. Smith wrote that his client either wanted to sell the properties or fix them and turn them into a “money making investment.”
In September 2009, Smith relayed his frustrations to Elliott in another letter.
“I submit that your clients have been acting in bad faith for months by advising my Client to not make any improvements to the Tabor Drive properties because the City was going to purchase it, then refusing to respond to repeated contacts by my Client requesting the current status of the City’s plans to purchase said property,” Smith wrote.
Elliott said in an interview with The Telegraph that the community development department had hoped the Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds could be used to acquire and demolish the properties, but there was never any commitment.
“There was a hope or an intention to pursue acquisition of that property from the city, but there was never a firm commitment made,” he said.
In addition, Elliott said, city employees cannot make commitments to anyone on behalf of the city without City Council’s approval.
“When you deal with public officials, you have to go to the decision makers to be — to receive information. I think there were some conversations with some staff level people and that company,” he said. “No one, no staff person, anybody, can make a commitment that’s binding upon a government. ... The law places a somewhat onerous burden on property owners, or anyone dealing with public officials, to be aware of the extent of that official’s powers and authorities.
“On the other hand, there’s no place for employees to ever mislead someone or not be candid about the limitations of those powers.”
Prior to the city’s interest in buying Allison Equities Inc.’s property, another investor was interested in late 2008, Smith said in a telephone interview with The Telegraph.
“But because of all the rules and regulations, and they weren’t sure whether the moratorium was still in effect or not, they backed out of buying my client’s property,” Smith said, noting no contract was ever signed.
The rules and regulations Smith mentioned are required of properties that lie in what is known as the Base Environs Zoning District. Properties in the district must adhere to additional requirements because of their proximity to the base.
“We don’t think the ‘overlay’ applies to our Client’s property, but it is not clear looking at a map,” Smith wrote in an e-mail to The Telegraph.
In addition, Smith said Lee led his client to believe the building moratorium was still in effect. Lee told Allison Equities Inc. representatives the moratorium was still in effect as recently as March 4, 2009, according to the complaint.
Lee said in an interview he would not talk about the Allison Equities Inc. properties, citing ongoing litigation.
Allison Equities Inc. no longer expects the city to purchase its property but will continue its open records lawsuit in an effort to inspect all the city’s records regarding its property, Smith wrote. Then, the company will decide whether to sue for damages.
“We don’t expect Warner Robins to purchase our property, but that does not mean that they are not responsible for any damages they caused by stringing my Client on,” Smith wrote.
‘I can’t get them to get back to me’
Ricky Roland, owner of Capri Mobile Home Park on Walnut Street, said he, too, feels strung along by the city.
Roland’s mobile home park lies in the Base Environs Zoning District. Although mobile homes are deemed an incompatible use in the area, Roland’s park was grandfathered in because it existed prior to the city’s 1994 adoption of the district.
To get Capri Mobile Home Park out of the base’s noise contour zone — high decibel levels are considered unsafe for a person’s health — Lee said he has proposed a “land swap” in which the city would relocate the park to another area of town and take ownership of the land. Lee said the city has land available on Long Street for the swap.
“Their core business is they make their money on renting those trailers out,” Lee said of mobile home park owners.
A land swap would continue to allow Roland to do that, Lee said.
“It helps the city clean up an area that we’re trying to clean, and then it helps them from the noise contours, and it helps the Air Force base,” Lee said.
But Roland, who said he was first approached about a land swap years ago, said he hasn’t spoken to anyone about it since about the time of Walker’s death.
“I can’t get them to get back to me. I have to run into Gary Lee at a damn restaurant. And he says it’s on the verge,” Roland said, “It’s always been on the verge. It’s been on the damn verge for three to four years.”
City Council would have to take action to make the land swap a reality. That hasn’t happened, nor has Elliott been asked to look into it.
“I’ve heard an idea about doing that, but I haven’t ever been asked any particular, or given any particular, specific information about it,” he said.
Elliott said the transition between mayors and councils may have something to do with any confusion.
“I think it’d be fair to say that there probably have been some things that were communicated in the past that haven’t gotten passed along to the present office holders that need to be addressed,” he said. “So I think it’s kind of difficult to blame, quote, ‘the city,’ for something when the city really is just comprised of the elected office holders at a given time.”
If a land swap is approved, Roland said he’s not sure he would agree to it. He wonders why the city wouldn’t just buy him out considering the expense of moving mobile homes.
Many mobile homes in the park are in some state of decay. Paint is faded and chipping, with rust consuming roofs and trailer hitches. Occupancy goes down as the condition of his mobile homes deteriorate, and Roland is losing income because of it, he said.
Roland said he agrees the land has to be redeveloped. A few years ago, he wanted to buy more property in the area to help bring in new tenants, he said. He also wanted to clean up his existing park by buying new siding and putting on new roofs.
“I don’t want to even touch any of it now,” he said.
‘I am not sure I will ever recover financially’
Robert McGrath thought he was doing the right thing by tearing down old mobile homes in the park he owned on Green Street. In fact, city officials encouraged his efforts, he claims.
Later, city officials told McGrath he could not move new mobile homes onto the property because they violated the Base Environs Zoning District, according to a lawsuit McGrath filed against the city. When he applied for an electrical permit to hook up a new mobile home in August 2007, he was denied.
McGrath, of Fayetteville, wrote in an e-mail to The Telegraph that he felt he received disparate treatment when another mobile home park obtained permits.
In the lawsuit, filed in November 2007, McGrath questioned the constitutionality of the special zoning restrictions. He argued that since the property was being used as a mobile home park when the overlay district was adopted, the ordinance allowed the existing use and the property was exempt from the district’s provisions.
Warner Robins officials denied wrongdoing in the lawsuit, and Houston County Superior Court Judge Katherine Lumsden sided with the city.
In August 2008, the court found McGrath could not replace mobile homes in the park because it was located within the overlay district when he originally purchased the property in 2001, and, therefore, was not exempt from provisions.
Elliott said officials felt the ruling proved the city’s ability to enforce that part of the zoning ordinance. While there probably were a minimal number of permits issued to property owners for replacement in the past, the city now would strictly enforce the requirements, he said.
McGrath wrote in his e-mail that he felt the city would use any “angle” it could to prevent him from putting mobile homes back on his property.
“It was my intent to be a part of cleaning this part of Warner Robbins (sic). As a gesture of good faith I leveraged my home to completely clean the park up, so I could start a complete make over,” he wrote.
McGrath wrote that his plan was to remove the current structures in the park, repave and put up a privacy fence. When he took back ownership of the property in August 2006 — he had transferred it to another owner one year earlier — about 35 homes already were in some state of demolition. The 9.26 acre site could accommodate about 105 homes, he wrote.
His targeted customers were young airmen assigned to the base.
“This would provide them with nice affordable housing close to work,” he wrote.
According to his e-mail and the lawsuit, some Warner Robins officials visited McGrath during the tear down, were aware of what he was doing and praised and encouraged his efforts. One of those officials was Robert Sisa, director of the Warner Robins Department of City Development, according to the lawsuit.
Sisa said in an interview with The Telegraph that he was not aware of McGrath’s plans and did not encourage them.
“We never had any formal plans on it until he submitted them at a later date,” Sisa said. “I didn’t know what he was going to do there.”
That issue was not fleshed out in court, Elliott said.
“What I recall from preparing for that lawsuit with insurance counsel was that the individuals — the city employees they spoke with, all said they had not ever given misinformation to Mr. McGrath,” Elliott said.
McGrath wrote in his e-mail that he lost all investment on the property, which had a projected value of about $2.6 million at its completion, as well as a projected $25,000 per a month in income from the lots. In addition, he wrote that he spent about $250,000 in clean-up costs and more than $15,000 in attorney’s fees.
His bank, Branch Banking & Trust Co., which joined him in the lawsuit, foreclosed on the property. Today, a wooden pole lies across the Green Street entrance to the park. The Whispering Pines sign, missing letters, lies broken on the ground. Asphalt is cracking, and piles of tires, broken furniture and other debris litter the property.
“I am not sure I will ever recover financially from this endeavor,” McGrath wrote.
‘This plan has been sitting dormant’
As for the impromptu soccer field and other razed property on Tabor Drive, some of it could become home to public housing for seniors. The redevelopment agency is trying to partner with the Warner Robins Housing Authority toward that end, redevelopment agency Executive Director Gary Lee said.
Sheryl Frazier, executive director of the Housing Authority, said that before Walker died he wrote the authority a letter stating his intent to give it about 2 acres of land on Tabor Drive. City Council has not approved that action, she said.
“We were considering building some senior housing. It is one of the plans that we have, but that plan requires a lot of planning and developing,” said Frazier, who joined the housing authority in February 2009.
Planning is still in the infancy stages as the housing authority talks with developers to see what is possible and if the authority can afford to build there, she said.
Kemp Harrison Homes, public housing located off Tabor Drive, currently houses the elderly. A long-term plan would be to build new senior housing and turn Kemp Harrison Homes into town homes — if the authority can afford it, Frazier said.
“The missing component at this moment is the funding,” she said.
Immediately, there are no plans for the property.
In the meantime, Lee said he is trying to give new life to a proposed redevelopment plan created by Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates, for which the city paid $240,000 in 2008. The plan, which City Council has not approved, targets an area roughly bounded by Russell Parkway, Pleasant Hill Road and Ga. 247. It looks to locate new industrial and technology centers along Ga. 247 and concentrate commercial and civic development at the core of downtown around Commercial Circle.
If fulfilled, the master plan would turn the mostly residential area north of Ignico Drive into a home for industrial and technology centers, with some mixed-income housing in areas deemed suitable for residential development.
After Walker died, momentum on redevelopment “sort of stopped,” Councilman John Williams said. Other issues, such as where to locate a new law enforcement center, have bogged council down, he said. After that issue is settled, Williams expects City Council to revisit the issue.
“This plan has been sitting dormant, all right, and what I’m trying to do is revitalize this plan,” Lee said. “We have 21st century technology across that base over there. ... Then when we walk across the street, we look like we stepped back in time into Mayberry.
“We’re not a one-horse town anymore, and we should stop behaving like it.”
To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 256-9705.