Planning Committee recommends rejection of proposed apartment complex
TUPELO • The Tupelo City Council is poised to decide the fate of a proposed apartment complex in west Tupelo after the city's planning committee recommended its rejection in front of a packed meeting with debate that at times got contentious.
The Tupelo Planning Committee voted 4-2 during a Monday night meeting to recommend the rejection of site plans for a large apartment complex on Colonial Estates Road. Gus Hildenbrand, Patti Thompson, Scott Davis and Leslie Mart voted in favor of the recommendation. Lindsey Leake and Committee Chair Pam Hadley voted against the rejection. Bentley Nolan and Mark Williams were absent.
After an almost two-hour meeting, complete with a dozen speakers, Mart motioned to reject the plans based on her opinion of Colonial Estates Road. She said it was too narrow and dangerous to support the complex, despite developers providing two separate traffic impact studies stating the road would be unaffected.
“I don’t care what the traffic studies tell us. I’m hard-pressed to approve any development (along Colonial Estates Road),” she said.
Stewart Rutledge of Oxford represented Flowerdale Commons, the proposed development, during the meeting. He gave a detailed presentation about the project. Oxford-based developer and property owner Britton Jones did not attend the meeting.
The complex would have 46 units and 107 parking spaces and would target “working class” residents making a total gross family income of $60,000. Rutledge noted the developers intend to provide housing to mainly veterans, police officers, teachers and health care workers.
Rutledge argued that the Planning Commission should approve the plans because they meet all specifications for the zoned land. He provided statements from city employees as well as Hadley, who noted the city code’s wording governing the approval process said “shall” approve rather than "may," meaning if a building complies with the zoning and codes the committee must vote to recommend its approval to the council.
The land in question is zoned for mixed-use, and city code notes apartment complexes are within use-by-right, meaning the city cannot disallow the construction of apartments on the property. Rutledge contended the site plans show the proposed complex was within all requirements.
“(The committee) cannot go beyond the rules even if they wanted to,” Rutledge said. “They cannot break their own laws just because people say they feel or are afraid of what might happen. … It is undisputed that the Flowerdale Commons site plan meets and exceeds the city’s ordinances, and that it is properly zoned by-right for its intended use. It will be an asset to the city of Tupelo.”
Before the vote, the committee asked Assistant City Attorney Stephen Reed if the committee would open itself up to a lawsuit by recommending the rejection of the site plans. He said it was up to the committee's discretion to make a recommendation, but he would not speak about possible litigation in an open session.
Rutledge declined to comment on the possibility of his company suing the city.
Davis asked Rutledge if the committee was supposed to ignore the residents in the area in favor of the complex. Rutledge said the committee should follow the code as written, not ignore the residents but to continue to “follow the law.”
“Take the temperature of the room,” Davis said. “We have a whole room of people — residents, business owners and taxpayers, and they don’t want this. It seems like you’re trying to bully your way in."
Most commenters were from nearby subdivision Colonial Estates. All shared concerns about traffic, safety and property values. Among the speakers was former Tupelo mayor Glenn McCullough, who is also a developer of the subdivision. He said the code does allow use-by-right, but contented that there was also an “intent” baked into the code, which prioritized employment in a mixed-use zone.
“My respectful recommendation is that Flowerdale Commons does not meet the purpose or intent according to our city’s code,” he said, reading from the code. “The objective of the mixed-use employment district is to provide concentrated areas of high-quality employment facilities that may be integrated with or adjacent to complementary retail and commercial uses and medium density residential uses.
"I have nothing against multi-family apartment complexes, but they don’t fit in mixed-use employment.”
Rutledge noted that intent does not supersede the language of the code and further noted the development would bring in employment through construction and management.
McCullough's sister and co-developer of the subdivision, Mary Conner Adcock, presented a petition from their neighborhood against the complex that had 200 signatures. Rutledge noted that the signatures made up less than 1% of the city as a whole.
Rutledge touted several letters in approval of his previous developments, including ones from Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill, Union County Sheriff Jimmy Edwards and Pontotoc Sheriff Leo Mask, whose daughter lives in one of Rutledge’s developments.
Rutledge noted that McCullough was a “competitor” that "lobbied" his neighborhood with “auto-generated emails” to stall the development.
“If (McCullough) didn’t like it, he could’ve bought the land,” he said. “It was for sale. If the city ignored the ordinances to do some private citizen’s bidding, who would be next? Can powerful citizens control other people’s land through political pressure?”
Residents also claimed the apartments were “low income” and would be government-subsidized through Section 8, but Rutledge said that was not the case. He said the only way the federal government was involved in the process was through incentives awarded to the developers through tax credits to build affordable housing.
The recommendation follows a meeting in May where the committee tabled the matter for 90 days until the developers could provide a traffic study and a redesign of the project, which had buildings that were longer than the 120 feet limit for multifamily dwellings. Colonial Estates residents shared their concerns at the previous meeting as well.
The next step is for the Tupelo City Council to make the final decision. Attorney Ben Logan told the Daily Journal the council planned to have a work session focusing on the topic before the council would take a vote. Most Tupelo council members attended the meeting, including Ward 1 Councilman Chad Mims, Ward 4 Council Woman Nettie Davis and Ward 7 Councilwoman Rosie Jones. They did not comment on proposed development or how they planned to vote.