Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross this past week declared, almost as an afterthought, that the county’s attempt to undo the Magnolia Trace development is finished.
“As far as our action, this is the end of it,” Cross said, reporting to fellow commissioners on the opinion from an outside attorney that the “affordable housing” project can’t be, and likely never could have been, stopped by local government action.
While riled-up residents of the area surrounding the Martinez development might not be satisfied, no one should be surprised. When commissioners agreed to hire a Savannah attorney to review the project and see if there were any possible roadblocks that could be thrown in its path, pretty much everyone already knew what the outcome would be. The whole thing was just a face-saving attempt from commissioners facing down an angry mob.
Yet in addition to allowing heads to cool, the passage of time also provides an opportunity for a less-passionate review of what Magnolia Trace is – and isn’t.
The negatives are pretty obvious. Magnolia Trace will be a large-scale warehouse for government assisted renters. Conversely, because it will be the newest thing in an old area, Magnolia Trace could undercut rental prices for surrounding homes (and there are numerous rental homes in the area) while pushing neighboring property values, and taxes, upward.
The positives might be harder to see, or for many, to admit. The construction will be high quality. And because the developer will provide exterior maintenance, including landscaping, the project will look good – better, in fact, than many of the tired homes nearby.
In the end, it will be a glorified apartment complex, only with individual homes.
It will be educational to return to the topic in, say, five years, after enough time to evaluate all the dire doom-and-gloom predictions. We’ll likely see that just as this project isn’t going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, as suggested by its developers, it also won’t be the death-knell for Martinez.
County attorney Doug Batchelor denies any conflict of interest in serving as the attorney in closing the land deal for Magnolia Trace. And technically he is correct; there’s no legal or ethical prohibition to Batchelor providing services to anyone. He still has to make a living.
But when Batchelor called Chairman Cross and District 2 Commissioner Trey Allen to his office in June 2010 to hear a pitch on Magnolia Trace, he says he can’t recall whether he told them he actually was working for the developer in that meeting, rather than the county. Allen, for one, says he was under the mistaken impression that Batchelor was acting as county attorney.
That is flat-out wrong, no matter how you look at it.
There occasionally has been talk of the county hiring a staff attorney rather than paying a retainer to outside counsel. It might be time to revive that discussion, if for no other reason but to ensure that county officials know that when they’re talking to their attorney, he’s really their attorney – and not at the moment on someone else’s payroll.