The City of Melissa is in the process of considering a proposal for construction of the first affordable housing multi-family apartment complex within the city, a development that has some residents up in arms.

The process began in November when Gardner Capital, Inc. (GCI), first presented the city with conceptual plans. City Manager Jason Little said that, interestingly, in his seven years with the city he had not seen any serious proposals for multi-family developments but within a two-week span in November the city received three proposals, two of which did not warrant proceeding work on.

The City of Melissa’s Planning and Zoning Commission subsequently held meetings to discuss and approve the rezoning of a tract of land located at the southeast corner of Miller Road and State Highway 121 behind the Melissa Crossing Shopping Center and Calhar Industries per GCI’s proposal. The most recent meeting was held on the evening of Jan. 16 to a packed house at City Hall.

The Planning and Zoning Commission, which is composed of board president Michael Hudson, Mark Williams, Ronald Hogsett, Mark Wallis, Craig Ackerman, Danielle Dorman-Chapa, Jay Northcut, Fredrick Lewis and Stephen Ford met on that Thursday night to discuss an ordinance amending a number Melissa’s codes in regard to multi-family residential districts while hearing from residents on the matter.

GCI will be heading up construction of the project if it is approved. GCI Vice President John Palmer was at the meeting and presented the board and those in attendance the company’s goals and a 3-D tour and presentation of the Fitzhugh Creek Villas project, which is also available through the company’s website at www.GCI-development.com. One of the issues according to a number of Berry Farms residents, is that the virtual tour depicts creek trails running through sections of land resembling privately owned property not included in the re-zoned area.

Fitzhugh Creek Villas is proposed to be a 96-unit multi-family complex on 8-plus acres of land, and tax credits given by the State of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs will make the housing affordable by the current standards of the area’s median income.

This is the first time the project has come to the planning and zoning board for approval. The P&Z board has handled hot-button issues before and has come to expect public displeasure from time to time, according to Hudson.

"During my time on the P&Z Commission we have only had three or four agenda items that created any significant interest from the residents of Melissa. For example, the adoption of the non-conforming building ordinance was not popular with some property owners and, equally, people were reluctant to embrace approval of some higher density residential planned developments," said Hudson.

According to those who attended the meeting, however, there was a noticeable lack of decorum from the board. The official minutes from the meeting have yet to be published, though the vote was a majority in favor of the project with one board member recusing themselves from the vote.

"I was very disappointed with the professionalism of the P&Z board with a room packed full of concerned citizens," said Bill Farmer. "This was a public hearing to discuss pros and cons with the community. Many spoke of their concerns and it appeared to fall on deaf ears with the board."

The planning and zoning board has had very few issues which have sparked this much debate in recent years. The citizens in attendance were passionate but some felt the limitations imposed upon them at the meeting were unreasonable.

"We the citizens were restricted to only three minutes to speak. The developer was allowed an hour and spoke two times the amount of the total time the community talked," said Farmer. "It was obviously one-sided for the developer and the voice of Melissa was not in the interest of the board. At times the P&Z was rude to the community they support and made sure the developer had control of the subject."

Araceli Clifford, one of those concerned Melissa residents who attended the meeting, addressed the planning and zoning board directly during the meeting.

"I spoke opposing the 96-unit multi-family residential apartment complex because of what it means for our community, schools, traffic and emergency response system," she said. "Other concerned citizens passionately talked about various reasons for opposing the re-zoning. Each person spoke the allotted time of three minutes except for the last citizen. My heart went out to him as he was cut off from speaking. He was not allowed to exercise his right to speak. What would resolve the situation? I feel that the city council and committees need to listen and hear the voices of their constituents."

Clifford said she is in the process of preparing a petition to help represent citizens wishing to voice their position against the project,

"We are all in this together", said Clifford, speaking of the need for the petition. "Jason Little and I talked about the petition. Our city council members need to see how many of their constituents oppose the 96-unit multi-family residential apartment complex because of its negative impact on our schools."

The increase in school enrollment would be inevitable and has raised alarm bells among citizens who have already expressed their concern over the growing classroom numbers. With the current class sizes averaging 24 to 28 students, there is already concern being expressed for the need for more teachers.

However, Little correctly states that school issues are not necessarily in the city’s purview when considering an application such as this.

"The State of Texas charges cities with doing one set of functions and school districts with [another.] While [residents’] comments are certainly a concern, to deny somebody the ability to do any particular project because of how it affects somebody else, a`la the school district, I think we’re kind of mixing governmental functions there. That is a challenge," said Little.

At the center of the issue, residents are concerned with possible repercussions the housing project will present to the community at large,

"The housing would lower property values in our neighborhood, increase delays in traffic flow and make getting to 121 a nightmare. We worry about how safe our neighborhood would be and the security of the businesses in place at that location," Farmer said.

Little said he has studied the crime figures available and found "there is no definitive line between multi-family use and crime." Multi-family use has been an allowed use since 1992 in the city’s zoning ordinance.

For the city, Fitzhugh Creek Villas represents the inevitable march of multi-family dwellings in the community. Melissa is, in fact, one of the few cities in the area without any multi-family housing within its limits. And to be clear, the city council must have a firm foundation for turning the project down if it is to do so as the Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits cities from using zoning or other tools to discriminate against public housing. And, according to Little, GCI has been compliant in dealing with the city’s zoning and ordinance requirements.

"At some point in time every growing community will have affordable housing development. The applicant has a good track record and is willing to exceed the minimum building requirements of our city ordinances," said Hudson.

Another concern raised by Clifford regards possible health consequences and the added strain to the city’s fire and police departments.

"As a registered nurse, I am concerned about the health needs of our community and how the growth of Melissa will challenge the services and resources of the emergency response system," she said.

During the meeting, Little announced plans to form a committee of standards for multi-family housing, and a few citizens also offered their perspectives on possible solutions,

"To help resolve the problem is to find a better location in Melissa and delay this until the roads are updated and the schools are grown to accept more students," said Farmer. "Melissa needs growth but not this type at this time. We have more pressing issues we need to address. This is not needed now."

"That location was selected by the applicant, and I assume they were able to acquire the property at a price which made their project economically viable," explained Hudson of the location process. GCI has purchased the property in question and is the property owner, according to Little. And while there are drawbacks, there are also positives as the city and school district would collect taxes from the development which was represented at the Jan. 16 P&Z meeting to be in the $10 million-plus range.

Little emphasized, however, that the he is hearing Melissa residents loud and clear

"We are doing everything we can to mitigate the concerns we’re hearing while at the same time balancing the requirements that cities have," said Little. "This is one of the more difficult community decisions that face all communities and there is never an easy answer. It’s not easy for Melissa right now; you never want an issue to start to be a divisive issue."

The city will hold one more public hearing during the Melissa City Council meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday at Melissa City Hall. Following the public hearing on the matter Council will take a vote on the project.