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Debate continues over NSP

COVINGTON -- A public hearing on the expansion of the county's Neighborhood Stabilization Program drew supporters and opponents Tuesday night. Most of those speaking in favor of the program are the only ones who know that they will be directly affected by it -- the residents of Fairview Estates.

Initially, county officials zeroed in on Fairview Estates off Fairview Road, where they intended to spend the entire $1.7 million they received in federal funding for the program, to purchase, rehabilitate and resell foreclosed properties and build a public park.

But publicity about the project and an upward turn in the housing market has resulted in most of those foreclosed properties being purchased, according to county officials.

The county is currently negotiating to buy two homes, according to Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan. Negotiations on as many as six to eight homes have fallen through because the county was outbid, she said, noting that it can only pay 99 percent of the appraised value of a home under NSP regulations.

Without enough houses to obligate all of the NSP money in Fairview Estates, the county is now seeking approval from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to expand the NSP program to cover much of western and southern Newton.

Those areas are the census tracts that scored highest on criteria established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, including the rate of foreclosures and subprime loans. DCA requires a public hearing before the area can be expanded.

But most people present at the hearing Tuesday, which took place at the Newton County Historic Courthouse, were more concerned with the merits of the program as a whole versus the plans for expansion.

Several people stated there are other sites in the county that do not fall into the designated area that have high rates of foreclosures, and the county should focus on those. However, Morgan said that areas must meet criteria established by HUD, and the county does not have leeway to pick and choose where the NSP funds can be used.

Resident Grady Pearson said the money should be used for commercial development along Salem Road to attract more home buyers. But Morgan said the funds cannot be used for that purpose.

Others were concerned that the county is allowed to buy vacant foreclosed property with the funds. However, Morgan said the only vacant property the county plans to purchase is the land for the public park in Fairview Estates. The rest of the money will be used to purchase and resell foreclosed homes, she said.

Some residents questioned what will be done with the money that is generated from the sale of properties. Morgan said it will go to purchase additional homes or, if not used, must be turned over to DCA. She said the program is 100 percent funded by the federal grant.

"It doesn't cost the taxpayers anything? I don't believe that," said resident Thomas Buckner.

Hal Bailey, a resident of Fairview Chase near Fairview Estates, said he believes the park will increase crime in the area. He said the money to develop the park should be used to purchase more houses.

Bailey said Wednesday that he has collected 100 signatures on a petition opposing the park and he plans to turn it over to DCA.

Most of the opposition Tuesday night came from people who do not live in Fairview Estates. Several residents from the neighborhood were in attendance and said that though they were once opposed, after getting educated on the project, they believe it will benefit their community.

When Bailey commented that crime would increase if the park goes in, one lady yelled out, "We've already got crime."

"Not like you're going to have," he responded.

"That's OK. We'll worry about our subdivision. We're taking care of it," a host of voices called out.

"I want the park," said Jonathan Moore, who noted that his house backs up to where it will be located. "Many days I wake up to kids running around my house because they have nowhere to go."

Moore said the houses were constructed so close together that kids have no place to play. He believes the park will give them a safe place to play and keep them from walking the streets.

Fairview Estates resident Noell Wallace said property values are already increasing in the neighborhood as a result of publicity about the project. Though most homes have been purchased by investors as rental property, Wallace said the neighborhood is receiving assistance from IECDG, the nonprofit administering the NSP program, in forming a homeowner's association so that they can regulate renters. Once the association is in place, members can create bylaws to limit the number of rental properties, she said.

Fairview resident the Rev. Sharon Collins said the majority of the neighborhood is behind the project, but some have yet to come on board, mainly due to misinformation. Initially, some residents thought a sports complex was going to be built at the park site, along with baseball fields and tennis courts, all of which is false, she said. They also heard it would be open 24 hours and parking would be on the street, which is also not true, she said.

IECDG and the county are working with residents to design the park, which will mostly be passive greenspace, to determine where amenities like pavilions should go, said resident Lecia Davis.

Wallace chimed in that currently there are weeds 6 feet tall on the site, which will be cleared when the park goes in.

"There could be a car parked back there and you wouldn't know it. You can't see what's going on. Now it's going to be cleared off and there's going to be trails so you can see what's going on," she said.