Comers hoping for positive resolution with land deal

Sandy and Braxton Comer are looking to sell their 30.5 country estate. In order to do that, the city needed to help by re-zoning the property. That decision will now be made by a judge in circuit court. Photo by Petre Thomas

There was a time when the only noise Braxton and Sandy Comer heard from the porch of their house were crickets. <>

And frogs who made their home at the pond located on the edge of their 30.5 acre country estate located off Old Taylor Road. Now, the buses that make up the Green Line of the OUT bus route, can be heard every 10 minutes.

There is constant traffic up and down Old Taylor when at one point the Comers could count the amount of cars and trucks passing through. Faulkner Flats, one of the newest residential complexes completed off the road, borders the property. A swimming pool that is inhabited by students this time of year are some of the new noises the Comer’s dogs have had to get used to hearing nearby.

New development, or maybe better put, multi-family developments, dominate the landscape scene from the property that provides the Comers a dwelling and business. It’s a far different look from the one the couple purchased back in 1983. Back then, there was no city influence, even though the University of Mississippi was a mile and a half up the road.

There was no city regulations until 2007 when the Comers, and their neighbors, were annexed by the city and incorporated into a new set of ordinances to deal with. The peace and tranquility of country living disappeared, slowly at first, but increased as UM gained a bigger enrollment. What started out as one development to house the overflow of students has turned into a myriad of different options.

Late last year, with no children left to raise at home, the Comers decided it was time to sell, to seek another piece of land that could offer what they used to have.

In order to sell their parcel of land, the Comers had to find a buyer who would be able to develop their land similarly to the existing area because there were few, if any, real estate investors who could do anything with the area without making it a Multi-Unit Residential development.

Strategic Development Company made the offer to purchase the Comer’s property, setting the stage for a request to rezone from country estate to multi-unit. The process began in earnest on Nov. 19, 2014 when a brief in support to rezone was offered to city leaders, which included notifying the planning department and application for rezoning.

The request for rezoning revolved around Mississippi law and the process created by the city. The Comers were required to prove a change in the character of the neighborhood and a public need for more multi-family housing. If these two legal requirements could be met, the property should be rezoned.

The first, and most obvious, argument working in favor of the Comers was a change in character of the neighborhood. Besides the recent completion of Faulkner Flats that literally touches the property, the Mark apartments are located directly across the road.

Taylor Bend is also less than a few hundred yards away, and another few higher density developments. That doesn’t even factor in the number of other developments up Old Taylor that have to be passed in order for the Comers to reach home each day.

The brief explains that even if single-family homes were built on the property by a developer, they more than likely would be converted into student rentals. An increase in student population, based on a 25 percent increase over the last half decade, suggested a need for the property to be rezoned, according to the brief. In short, there was a public need for the units based on the data.

Oxford’s Planning Commission first heard the argument on Dec. 8, 2014. The Comers gained approval by a 4-3 vote, with Commissioner John Bradley making the motion to approve. Everything seemed to be moving along as planned, under the law, until the proposal hit a snag when the city’s Board of Aldermen, acting on a motion made by Alderman Janice Antonow, sent it back to the Planning Commission during the first of three readings by the Board of Aldermen.

On Feb. 9, the Comers were back in front of the Planning Commission. This time, the vote went the other way, 4-3, with Bradley switching his support of the project. City leaders had the proposal on the docket at their March 3 meeting. Sandy Comer spoke at the meeting, saying that the country life the couple used to have had disappeared.

“We planned for that to be our forever home. Now, when I look out my window, I see tops of condos,” Sandy Comer said. “I hear screaming. I hear the bus line. It’s not my home anymore. I’m not happy there. I want to be back in the country. People never knew we existed back there because we had our own little sanctuary. And now we don’t have the privacy we had, and it’s just – our happiness is in y’all’s hands.”

Another person who spoke in favor of the Comers at that meeting was Herron Roland, who bought his property off Old Taylor in 1994. Roland told the board that he and his wife owned several acres, and considered the Comers neighbors.

“Seven years ago, there might have been six people living in between us. Today, the numbers are several thousand,” Roland said. “My issue is not really do I want another development out on that part of Old Taylor Road. I didn’t necessarily want the first one; certainly didn’t want the second one. Didn’t want the seventh one. But it’s boxed in the property owners there to what choice do they have? What choice do we have with our property except to either sell it, and then move on and do something else; or watch what were country estates just dwindle and go away.”

In the same meeting, J. Pat Howe, of Strategic Development Company, was given a few minutes to speak about the project. His report revolved around the need of housing, citing a significant growth. Across the board, Howe said in the minutes, the occupancy rate across the board is at 96 percent, with an increase of 4 percent each year.

On Page 20 of the minutes, Howe posed the question that if the area was annexed today, what would be done with the property? His answer was that it probably would be rezoned RC or multi-unit residential. The master plan of 2004 is also cited in the minutes and how the city should take efforts to reduce or limit or counteract the conversation of single-family homes to rental homes. It also calls for measures to restore the fabric of the neighborhoods. With the neighborhood being multi-family now, the prevailing theme was a rezone was needed.

Two weeks later, on March 17 at the third, and final, reading of the proposal, there was no vote taken. That led to the Comers and Strategic Development to file a Notice of Appeal in Lafayette County Circuit Court on March 25. The final decision on the future of the land will now come from a judge.

The next court term is set to begin July 6, but no information about Case No. 1912 being heard during that time period has been provided.

While there was no public outcry about the new development during the early stages of public comment, that changed as the process continued, and after the allotted time. The Comer’s property is located right next to Thacker Mountain Trails that also borders over 400 acres owned by UM. They are used by the public and some have voiced a concern about their appearance with the possibility of a new development.

Antonow, who represents Ward III, provided grievances, emails she had received, about the trails possibly being affected. She stated that 24 people who contacted her were against it, while one was in favor. However, what wasn’t reported, was the fact that a petition in support of the project was created by nearby landowners who were in favor of the development.

A total of 13 landowners, both to the north and those that surround the Comer’s property overall, signed their respective names in favor of the change. Those are the majority of the nearest landowners or residents. The information was put into the record, but not brought up to help support the Comers.

In regards to the trail, the developer, Strategic Development, wants to keep them intact, and in great shape. In the attempt to keep the existing integrity of the trails, Strategic planned to go

“above and beyond” normal regulations, creating a buffer zone of 75 feet from the trails. The concept plan showed a large line of trees that would act as the buffer zone, with two connections leading to the trail. Many of the existing trees would be retained, according to the plan, while additional outdoor fitness areas would be added to enhance the natural elements located on that side of the property. Strategic also offered up a $25,000 donation to fund the Thacker Mountain-Rail Trail project to support and maintain the upkeep of the trail.

There is no firm number as far as the amount of units that The Ridge, the proposed name of the development, would offer, but Howe said the overall density would be about half of what could be allowed under the ordinance. The residences would be a “town home” style. The company has built similar residences in both Athens, Georgia, home to the University of Georgia, and in Knoxville, Tennessee, home to the University of Tennessee. Both of those developments are over 90 percent occupied.

Twitter: @oxfordcitizenjd

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