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First reading of Walker's Bend overlay approved

COVINGTON -- Covington Mayor Kim Carter cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of approving the first reading of the Walker's Bend Overlay Zoning District on Monday night.

The council was split 3 to 3, with the sticking point being that there is no minimum square footage requirement, and some homes are being planned as small as 760 square feet.

The overlay was proposed at the request of property owners and the Covington Redevelopment Authority in hopes of protecting their investment in the neighborhood off Ga. Highway 81, which is the site of the city's Neighborhood Stabilization Program and the first target of the city's housing initiative.

The overlay establishes standards for property maintenance and the design of future development in Walker's Bend. But it doesn't establish a square footage minimum for houses, and in August, when the city first considered the overlay, a rental property owner said that was a problem.

David Willett of Newton Oxford Properties LLC, of Loganville, who owns 11 rental properties in Walker's Bend, said the existing homes there average more than 1,500 square feet, with the largest at more than 1,900 and the smallest at more than 1,200. Willett said allowing homes as small as 760 square feet could mean a drop in property values for existing homeowners.

The council sent the overlay back to the Planning Commission for reconsideration based on the square footage concern, and for a second time, the commission recommended approval without setting a square footage minimum. However, Councilman Chris Smith said there was not a quorum at the meeting so the vote was not official.

Smith and Councilmen Keith Dalton and Mike Whatley all raised concerns about the smaller homes. Smith said the houses proposed would fit into the sitting area of the City Council meeting room, which he said is 850 square feet.

"That's a house where they're sitting," he said, referring to the audience. "A whole house."

There are 1,500-square-foot houses in the neighborhood selling for $40,000 on the auction block, Smith said.

"You're proposing to build houses half that size for twice the price. Who's going to buy these houses for $90,000?" he said.

A requirement that homes must be built to Earthcraft House Standards, a set of guidelines for energy and resource efficient homes, will "totally knock out anybody in the free market that wants to come out and build a house out there. They won't have assistance from the government like we do," said Dalton, who also worried that smaller homes will hurt property values once the housing market turns around.

"Those values aren't going to climb back any time soon. The best thing is for them to have better homes built with less square footage and then, boom, their houses will double in value when that (smaller) house sells," said Senior Planner Randy Vinson.

The homes will be higher quality than many larger homes, built at a higher cost per square foot, he said, and will be targeted to singles, retired couples and others who don't want to deal with maintenance, upkeep and utilities that come with a large house. He said in other areas these homes, known as Mississippi Cottages, have been built as small as 300 square feet.

Sales in Walker's Bend will be market driven; there will be no spec homes built, he said. Not all of the homes will be small, but he said the Redevelopment Authority needs to be able to provide that option for those looking to downsize. The idea is to get away from the cookie cutter type subdivisions and build homes in a variety of sizes for people in all stages of life -- from couples starting out, to families, to empty nesters, to retirees, he said.

Roger Smith, a member of the Covington Redevelopment Authority, said he, too, was concerned abut the smaller houses until he visited some similar developments in Griffin and Columbus and found them to be beautiful and livable.

"If we can set the standard for building quality homes maybe everyone else will follow," he said.

Some council members said smaller houses are needed.

"Nobody that gets older wants a bigger home. Size doesn't matter as long as it meets their needs," said Janet Goodman.

"The days of the McMansions are gone ... I think y'all will have the market for smaller houses. I don't think there will be a problem with that," added Hawnethia Williams.

The council was deadlocked 3 to 3, with Smith, Dalton and Whatley opposed and Williams, Goodman and Councilwoman Ocie Franklin in favor; Carter broke the tie to approve the first reading. The final reading is expected to occur at the council's Oct. 4 meeting.

The mixed use development plan proposed for Walker's Bend includes 233 dwellings and 15,000 square feet of office/commercial space.

The city has purchased nine units through federal Neighborhood Stabilization funds that are now occupied. The Covington Redevelopment Authority owns 69 lots. There are an additional 134 vacant lots owned by eight different banks and the FDIC. The Redevelopment Authority plans to partner with Affordable Equity Partners, the developers who are also planning a senior facility downtown, to build 32 three and four bedroom single family homes and establish a rental program based on income. It will also partner with local home builders to contract build new homes in the subdivision.