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Bibb officials move forward with land plans

Joe and Sandra Norman have lived on Feagin Road in south Bibb County for 33 years, in a modest one-story brick house Joe Norman and his father-in-law built.

They don’t want to move, but they’re afraid eventually they won’t have a choice.

That’s because Bibb and regional officials have a plan to buy about 240 parcels in the southern part of the county that lie in the accident potential zones and noise contour for Robins Air Force Base. They also are targeting 15 to 20 parcels in Houston County.

Officials say they’re not forcing anyone to move, but eventually they plan to rezone the area industrial to prevent future residential growth. Doing so will protect the health and safety of residents, as well as the base, during the next round of the base realignment and closure process, officials say.

Residents worry what will happen to their neighborhoods and property values when that occurs.

“I don’t know. It ain’t nothing but a mess,” Joe Norman said. “They said you don’t got to go, but they said they’re gonna make it so hard you’re gonna want to go.”

Meanwhile, officials — including Bibb County commissioners and members of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce, Middle Georgia Regional Development Center and Central Georgia Joint Development Authority — are moving forward with their plans.

Interested residents have been meeting with representatives from the group since a community meeting was held about the issue in April.

So far they’ve talked to more than 60 residents, with at least 20 more to go, said Chip Cherry, the chamber’s president and CEO. Following those talks, a “significant number” of residents indicated they’d like to have their property appraised, he said. One property already has been bought for a little less than $75,000, with the chamber securing an interim loan for the purchase, Cherry said.

Officials estimate it could take $15 million to $17 million to acquire all the property, Cherry said. But that figure is a moving target because it doesn’t include any other expenses that may be incurred during the process. Plus, officials don’t know how many residents will sell.

Working with Bibb and regional officials, Robins applied for a $3 million grant from the Department of Defense for the project, Cherry said. The base received $500,000 in the first round, but, Cherry said, it may be able to get another allocation this year.

In July, the beginning of the next fiscal year, the base will be eligible for more funding, said Laura Mathis, director of public administration with the RDC.

In addition, the Bibb County Commission has allocated $750,000 for the project in its proposed budget, and Mathis and Cherry said they hope to get other funding partners.

Whatever money the base receives from the Department of Defense grant, it must be spent within 18 months, Cherry said. But he indicated that shouldn’t be a problem. There’s about $2.5 million worth of property that can be purchased in the next four months if funding is available, he said.

“There’s no sense in dragging it out at a snail’s pace,” Mathis said.

It’s already been about five years since the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission made its last attempt to restrict new residential construction in the area. The proposed change eventually was dropped because of public outcry.

RESIDENTS GRAPPLE WITH WHETHER TO RELOCATE

Discussions with residents are helping shape a uniform process for selling their property. Officials are looking for ways to address the issues residents bring up at the meetings, Cherry said.

The group of officials currently is trying to figure out if it can offer relocation assistance or a life estate option, he said. The life estate option would allow residents to sell their property and get the money for the sale now but continue living there until they die. At that point the property would revert to the county.

“It’s been a very good process,” Cherry said. “I think a lot of these people are just concerned about being treated fairly. ... We’re trying to accommodate each individual’s needs.”

David O’Leary, who lives on Saint Clara Drive, said he felt more at ease after his meeting with Joni Woolf, a past vice chairwoman of the planning and zoning commission. Other residents met with Clay Murphey, who is in the real estate business.

O’Leary said he was mainly concerned what the neighborhood would look like if he stayed and others sold. Cherry said the county would remove any structures on property it buys to revert the land back to undeveloped lots.

“I’m much more confident that they’re thinking things through this time,” said O’Leary, who has lived on his property since 1980.

He said he signed up for an appraisal, although he’s still not sure if he will sell or stay.

Warner Robins resident Mike Rogers said he’s looking to sell the unimproved property he owns on Patricia Drive if the price is right. An appraiser already has been out on the property, which he had purchased as an investment, he said.

“I think they’re definitely taking into account the concerns of the citizens,” he said.

Others aren’t so sure. Several residents said they think the real push to buy their property has nothing to do with their safety or even concerns for the base in the next round of BRAC.

Residents point out there has been no major accident in the area surrounding the base, and the noise doesn’t bother them.

“It’s always been about making this an industrial park and expanding Robins Air Force Base,” said David Dowd, who lives on Feagin Road.

Cherry said it’s not about creating a new industrial park, although he understands that sentiment.

In the past, residents weren’t talked to about the safety and health issues, he said, so they don’t trust the process.

The Air Force has identified industrial development as an acceptable use for land in accident potential zones, Cherry said. An Air Force handbook indicates high-density residential development is incompatible.

Looking long term, industrial development would help get those properties back on the tax rolls, Cherry said, and there are plans for the joint development authority to hold the deeds until enough property has accumulated that could be marketed to companies, he said. But that may not occur for another 10 to 15 years, he said.

About 20 percent of the targeted property is wetlands, and those parcels could have other uses, he said.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Ron Smith of the 21st Century Partnership, a Robins booster, denied the project had anything to do with expansion of the base.

“The 21st Century Partnership’s job is to identify obstacles to Robins viability. Land use is one of those things,” he said.

Dowd said residents just want to be told the truth and fairly compensated.

“Whatever I’ve got here, whatever I enjoy here, give us the compensation to have it somewhere else,” he said.

Dowd’s wife, Ruby, said the on-again, off-again talks have prevented the couple from replacing the windows and putting in a pool at their 30-year-old house.

“We live in limbo,” she said.

Up the street, Lawrence and Sue Minshew are waiting to see what happens. Their land has been in the family for 175 years, and they’d prefer that it stay that way, Sue Minshew said.

The noise from the planes doesn’t bother them, she said, and they like the big open spaces. Despite what officials say, the couple said they believe they’re being forced to move.

“What worries me most is that we’ll be left out in the cold and won’t have enough to start over,” Sue Minshew said. “We’re happy here.”

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.

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