COVINGTON - County officials and staff met with residents of Fairview Estates Thursday night to inform them and get their input on how the county will purchase and redevelop foreclosed properties and build a public park in their neighborhood.
Some residents aren't happy with the county's intentions. Others said they'll remain open-minded if leaders will take their feedback seriously and help them take control of the homeowners association and obtain the amenities they were promised by a developer who didn't deliver.
Located off Fairview Road, Fairview Estates was targeted earlier this year by commissioners for the federally funded Neighborhood Stabilization Program because at the time it had the highest foreclosure rate in the county, according to Senior Planner Scott Sirotkin.
Newton County has received $1.7 million in NSP funding that is being administered through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
Sirotkin said approval from DCA for the housing portion of the project is expected any day, while approval of the park could come by the end of the month.
The meeting was held at The Oaks Course, a golf course on Brown Bridge Road owned by Nancy Schulz, the commissioner who represents Fairview Estates.
"We live in this community and we want this program to be successful. We're not like the developer that came in and left the community, because we live here ... Ultimately we want this to be a project you all are proud of," Schulz said.
But for that to happen, residents said they need some concerns addressed.
As designed, the park would include a 50-foot buffer with shrubs and mulch, but some residents said that's not adequate.
Some asked that the park be private, but Jenny Carter with the County Attorney's Office said the county cannot use public funding for a private park.
Others requested a fence, but Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan said limited funding allotted for the project won't allow for that. However, nothing in the law prohibits soliciting private donations for a fence, officials said.
As currently designed, the park would be mostly passive greenspace. It would also include walking trails, picnic tables, a pavilion and a playground. Some residents said they would prefer a basketball court and sports field, but others said that would draw in more people from other areas.
The park would be open from dawn until dusk and maintained by the Newton County Recreation Commission.
Residents said they're concerned the park will be a hotbed for criminal activity.
Sheriff Ezell Brown assured them that a Neighborhood Watch program is already in the works and he is stepping up patrol efforts in Fairview Estates. He said residents need to be proactive in reporting crimes to the Sheriff's Office as well. His deputies will regularly patrol the park, he said, but added that he will not have someone stationed there around the clock.
"If you want to take back your community, that's what we plan to do, is take your community back," he said.
The park will be located on approximately 20 acres in phase four of the subdivision, which remains undeveloped and has been foreclosed on. Some residents asked if there were alternatives for that property.
Carter said other options would be a public facility or homes. Some residents said they would prefer a library on the site, but officials said there is not enough funding and a library would draw even more people.
Carter said the original site plan calls for 95 homes and an amenities area there. The county would not undertake development of new homes - that would have to be done by a developer and would not be part of the NSP plan, she said.
Residents said they have been paying fees but never received the amenities package, including a private park and swimming pool, promised by the developer.
SunTrust Bank now owns the land and has appointed a management group to head up the homeowners association.
If the county purchases the land from SunTrust, residents would be given the reins to the homeowners association, Carter said.
While the county can't enforce private covenants, it can enforce zoning conditions, and the zoning was conditioned on amenities in phase four, she said.
That news was enough to get William D. Nations, whose property backs up to the proposed park site, on board.
"I'm more for the park if it will get us our homeowners association so we can work with somebody and get the amenities we were promised," he said.
By a show of hands, most residents agreed they would be in favor of the park if a better buffer was designed.
But they were still concerned that the entire project could decrease their property values.
Anyone who purchases a home through the NSP program must qualify for a mortgage and find their own lender the same as other homeowners, said James Hellams Jr., chairman of IECDG, the nonprofit organization that is partnering with the county on the project.
The county must pay at least 1 percent less than market value resale at or below the cost of acquisition and rehabilitation.
To qualify, families must make no more than 120 percent of the area's median income, which is $85,450.
At least 25 percent of NSP funds must benefit families that make 50 percent or less of the median income at $35,600.
If the purchaser resells the property, the new buyer must also meet those qualifications, Sirotkin said. That clause is in effect for 10 to 15 years, he said.
"Our opinion and that of the federal government is that it's going to help your values," said R.J. Fields, president of IECDG, the nonprofit organization that will administer the NSP.
"There's an opportunity here for somebody to come and pay it for you. There are federal dollars coming downstream to improve your neighborhood," he said. "We've got to work together. We're your friends, not your enemies. Give us a chance."
Initially, the county could purchase eight or nine homes, depending on the price, according to Sirotkin.
But as the homes are resold, more could be bought, said Fields.
"It's somewhat of a perpetual wheel that turns. We expect to be able to continue to buy homes," he said.
Some residents said they were mainly angry they had not been notified of the county's plans and didn't find out until a resident happened upon a newspaper article.
Carter said the county was required to get DCA approval for the project. She said officials assumed residents would be excited about the park and didn't want to get their hopes up in case the state did not approve it.
"We kind of got the cart before the horse and now we're trying to get things flipped again," she said.
Following the meeting, Lecia Davis, one of the neighborhood's spokespeople, said it was a step in the right direction.
"I think more people were informed. We got more residents out ... We've gotten more information and more questions asked, so that's progress. Hopefully we'll keep moving forward to something that will benefit both us and the county," she said.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.