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Newton County still facing NSP criticism

COVINGTON -- Newton County is continuing to defend its Neighborhood Stabilization Program in the wake of resident complaints to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

DCA has requested a response from Newton County regarding correspondence it received in December from three residents -- Latricia Jones-Smith; Hal Bailey; and Mamie N. Jones -- who are opposed to the development of a public park in Fairview Estates off Fairview Road.

Among the allegations made by Jones-Smith are that some homeowners "received royalties from the project committee" and that one person "was given something for voting in favor of the park." Jones-Smith and Jones also expressed concern over a lack of citizen participation opportunities.

In a letter dated Jan. 21, DCA requested that Newton County respond by providing: a timeline including dates of advance publication of all public hearings and notes from those hearings; names of officers or responsible parties involved in the operation of the current homeowners association, as well as the status of that organization; and response to the allegation of royalties or other gifts provided to residents of Fairview Estates.

DCA has also received petitions from residents both opposed to and in favor of the park, according to Glenn Misner, director of DCA's Office of Field Services.

On Jan. 20, Newton County submitted a response to DCA regarding a separate letter sent in November by Bailey that alleged the county was no longer buying foreclosed properties in Fairview Estates and that the park will increase crime.

"Newton County takes the concerns of its citizens very seriously and has held numerous public meetings in order to present information on our NSP project, hear from the public and provide answers to any questions," Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan said in her response letter.

Morgan said the county is continuing to pursue the purchase of foreclosed homes in the neighborhood, and currently has three homes under contract.

Morgan said the park will help deter crime rather than attract it. The land where it will be located is currently overgrown, undeveloped and hidden from residents' view. Once the park is in place, it will be visible from local roads within the neighborhood, she said. Also, the Sheriff's Office will regularly patrol the park and residents of the neighborhood have formed a Neighborhood Watch Group, she said.

As part of the environmental review for the park, the county contacted Lt. Mark Mitchell with the Newton County Sheriff's Office to address public safety. Morgan said that Mitchell initially expressed concern that the park could attract juveniles who would engage in undesirable activities, but once the scope of the park was conveyed, he was satisfied the issue would be ameliorated through the park's design.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson also complained to DCA about the county's handling of the NSP, but DCA recently concluded the county was compliant regarding the issues he raised.

Misner said the awarding of NSP funds in March 2009 constitutes approval for all activities proposed in the application, including the park.

DCA approved in December a request by the county to expand the area eligible for use of NSP funds to cover much of western and southern Newton.

Initially, county officials zeroed in on Fairview Estates, 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 the park.

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