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Suit pits city, developers over apartments on Baker Street

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Posted: Wednesday, September 18, 2019 12:00 am

Since May 2017, the city of Monroe has been negotiating a lawsuit with Monroe-Walton Properties, a development company owned by George Baker Jr. and his son George Baker III.

The crux of the suit is the zoning of a roughly 10-acre tract of land on Baker Street in Monroe. In 2017, the Bakers tried to re-zone it from a mostly commercial use to a Planned Residential Development, to allow for an apartment complex.

The plan was the to build a 204-unit, low-income tax-credit based complex with a handful of amenities. The number of units later dropped to 180, but the request was denied in April 2017.

The next month, the Bakers filed a suit claiming “the mayor and city council disregarded standards in the zoning ordinance, the facts before it, the public need for quality workforce housing, and the plaintiffs constitutional rights, and instead simply deferred to the will of the opposition and denied the 2017 request.”

The suit also claims the city violated the Fair Housing Act by denying fair low-income housing opportunities to minority groups. It seeks damages of $1.1 million.

The city, of course, denies all this. When the application was before city council, the rationale for denial was twofold. One was that there is a 12-acre minimum to re-zone something into a PRD,  and the other was that the PRD is for multiple uses, and this proposal only had one.

The case continues to work its way through the court system. Last week, the parties were present at a hearing before Alcovy Circuit Chief Judge John Ott to settle the question of whether the city should be able to see appraisals of land surrounding the Walton County Government Building, which the Bakers placed in a conservation easements around 2015. 

Ott will be reviewing the motions and decide the matter in the coming weeks.

But that’s a small part of a larger picture.

In 2017, the Bakers presented a plan to the city to create a 204-unit complex with amenities like a dog park and a movie theater. The application said the Bakers had been marketing the property as a commercial development for over 10 years with little luck.

City staff initially recommended approval, with a slew of conditions. But by the time the request reached the City Council, the recommendation had changed to denial, based on the reason that it didn’t fit within the PRD.

The lawsuit alleges that the shift happened because of significant pushback for the proposal at the Planning and Zoning Commission and among the general public, rather than something in the city’s rules. Much of that opposition was about the low-income nature of the project and that there were too many apartments in the city already.

The council then denied the re-zone. 

The suit calls the denial “arbitrary, capricious, irrational, a manifest abuse of the discretion and a denial of the Plaintiff’s rights to procedural and substantive process.”

The suit landed the next month. It will likely not go to trial soon.

The Bakers declined to comment. Monroe City Attorney Paul Rosenthal could not be reached by press time.  

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