By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
The Fort Bend Women’s Center received approval and a tax credit last week from the state for its $15 million, 104-unit apartment community for survivors of domestic violence who are no longer in crisis.
But some homeowners surrounding the property don’t feel they were given the opportunity to fully express their disapproval so they could affect the decision. About 10 property owners drove to Austin last week to express their dismay over the plan to use the 20 acres at the corner of West Bellfort and Skinner Lane as the site for the low-income housing community called Magnolia Gardens.
Residents say they raised their issues expressing concerns about declining property values, safety, school overcrowding and the fact that the initial proposal was based on the assumption that the center would get annexed into the Long Meadow Farms subdivision and use their utilities.
The community’s MUD board denied the center’s request, causing the center to “go to plan B” and build its own well and wastewater treatment plant on the site.
Long Meadow Farms residents went to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs meeting at the state’s capital to try to sway the board not to award the 9 percent housing tax credit to FBWC.
The tax credit program is one of the primary means of directing private capital toward the development and preservation of affordable rental housing for low-income households. One of the requirements is that the housing not be in a high poverty area.
“We made our case but they had already made up their minds. They no more wanted to listen to what we had to say. The only reason they listened is because they’re required. But the minute the last person spoke, they voted in less than 10 seconds,” said a Virginia Drive property owner who asked his name not be used.
Residents on Virginia Drive and the Long Meadow Farms subdivision said their home values range from $300,000 to $800,000. Many of the homes on Virginia Drive, located about a half mile from the site, were built by the property owners. The homes are on a minimum 1.4 acres of land in heavily wooded property that used to be an old tree farm.
Homeowners said they understand why the request by FBWC to be annexed into the Long Meadow Farms MUD was denied.
“It was denied for good reason. The developers have built the reputation of being out in a rural area, a nice area, and they didn’t want their subdivision to annex a Section 8 into $800,000 homes,” said a homeowner.
When asked if the Austin board rubber stamped the process, the executive director of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs issued a prepared statement.
“The Board certainly listens to and appreciates the thoughtful and concerned comments provided. Under the laws and rules that govern this program, the Board did not have any clear basis for action other than awarding these credits to an applicant who had met threshold criteria and had a winning score. The tax credit process is a process that is highly regimented by law and rule, and some of the concerns raised sound as if they could present significant, though not insurmountable, challenges to this developer as they move forward. If this awardee requires any material amendments to its application, those will have to be brought back to the Board for consideration,” said TDHCA Executive Director Tim Irvine.
Irvine declined further comment.
Patrick Whittaker of Virginia Drive said he is probably going to be looking at a water treatment plant in his backyard.
“Right now it’s trees, woods, deer, birds, foxes and hawks. I just saw two bobcats playing this morning. It was something,” he said. “This decision makes me sick to my stomach.”
Whittaker designed, engineered and built the home he planned to live and retire in.
“That’s all gone with this Section 8 next door,” he said.
Residents called to complain to the Fort Bend Star but quickly asked their names not be attached to their statements, in part because some of their statements were inflammatory.
“You know it’s going to be a bunch of minorities and that’s going to bring crime,” said one resident. “You can’t quote me because I don’t want my house burned down,” said the homeowner.
Another homeowner said he went to Austin to challenge the process.
“We’re not lawyers or developers that fully understand the tax credit application,” he said in explaining why they did not organize opposition earlier.
He said they should have made their complaints when the state committee was making recommendations to the board. He believes they were deliberately kept in the dark so they would not have time to organize opposition when the project was still in committee meetings.
“The Fort Bend Women’s Center seem to think they were really forthcoming and that’s a bunch of bull. She (FBWC Executive Director Vita Goodell) didn’t want to talk to anybody about it because they didn’t want us to organize. She won’t admit that, but that is my opinion,” said the homeowner.
He said Goodell is not being realistic.
“She has this pie-in-the-sky attitude saying we’d like to work with the neighborhood and make this a neighborhood park. They are trying to protect the residents and are thinking of letting the 10 acres open to the neighborhood, she is full of it. First off, no one in the neighborhood wants to associate with those people,” he said.
The Fort Bend Women’s Center bought the property on the stipulation they get approved funding to build. Now that their tax credit is approved, they will meet with the architects and engineers.
“It will take a while before we break ground. Maybe in the spring break ground and a year to build,” Goodell said.
Goodell disputes claims that they were not being transparent.
“We went to MUD in February and tried to contact the neighborhood and were told there is no homeowners association and no board. To communicate with neighbors it would be through MUD so we got on the agenda in February. It’s not like they didn’t know,” Goodell said.
Then they held a town hall meeting at Long Meadow Farms on June 28. The final comment period ended on June 30, she said.
“As far as we are concerned, we did what we could,” Goodell said.
A homeowner disagreed.
“I believe something this important should have been overtly brought to the people and not buried in crap. People should have come up and down Virginia Drive and rung doorbells. Legally no, but morally, this should have been a meaningful attempt. This has the potential for affecting property values and bringing crime; that just brings a little more obligation. This deserved a little more than the bare minimum requirement,” he said.
Lamar Consolidated ISD spokesman Mike Rockwood said the school district is aware of the Magnolia Gardens Apartment Community.
“At this time no decision has been made, but the students will attend either Adolphus Elementary or Frost Elementary. Adolphus ended the 2015-2016 school year with 715 students, while Frost Elementary ended the year with 451 students. The proposed development is very close to both schools.
“As a fast-growth school district, we implement many strategies to alleviate temporary overcrowding at campuses. Adding students from this new development is not a concern and we look forward to educating all children in Lamar CISD,” Rockwood said.
Goodell said they will start working on plans to get the water treatment and well water permit. She also wants to get a small committee of people from the community involved.
“We’ll want to get some input from them on things we can do because we want to be good neighbors and accommodate concerns,” Goodell said. “So if we need to build a fence to make sure no one can come back and pet their horses, we’ll do that.”