P&Z OKs new homes in recession-stalled neighborhoods; Event center approved


Liz Fabian

The house on the left is part of the original development in The Highlands, but the one on the right was recently built under new plans.

Pursuit of the American Dream of owning a home derailed in 2007 with the bursting of the housing bubble.

Macon was not immune and only recently has seen a resurgence of building in three unfinished subdivisions.

Construction came to a halt for more than a decade in neighborhoods such as The Highlands.

In late 2007, the sprawling 223-acres off Mumford Road in northwest Bibb County had been under construction for about three years when the market began to plummet.

The average price of a house in the United States went from a peak of $314,000 in 2007 before dropping by more than a third to $207,000 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census.

Foreclosures and loan defaults destroyed the housing market. Original plans for The Highlands fell through when the bank took over 198 vacant lots and 137 acres for future building.

Monday, the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission approved new house plans for the subdivision but without the original standards set in 2004.

Back then, all the attached townhomes, courtyard and garden-style homes were designed for Hardiplank fiber cement siding and shake accents. Vinyl siding was expressly forbidden when the neighborhood began.

Plans approved Monday call for all vinyl siding and accents.

A couple of the designs with front loading garages also do not have porches, which had been a requisite for homes in The Highlands.

Jay Enck, who moved to Ivy Brook Way about four years ago, said it was the style of the neighborhood and the uniform standards that drew him there.

“The new houses going up look cheap on the outside and don’t follow through on the standards,” Enck said. “They don’t have porches, very generic lighting.”

The shift in lower-cost materials concerned P&Z commissioners, who considered three proposals from WJH Century Complete to change architectural plans that had been previously approved for Highlands and the Quail Ridge and Kinsale developments.

“That’s real interesting,” Commissioner Josh Rogers noted in the application. “The lots to be developed are mixed in with existing houses.”

The exception is the Kinsale development off of Pineworth Road near Lake Tobesofkee. It was originally approved in 2005 for a 136-lot cluster subdivision, but no houses were built. The project stalled in the recession and the bank took over.

Because the development had been dormant for more than a dozen years, P&Z staff recently issued 21 permits for new single-family dwellings, not realizing there were existing pre-approved plans for the neighborhood. Once it was discovered, P&Z put a halt to the permits which brought the builder to Monday’s hearing.

P&Z Commissioners did not have as many reservations about the new designs for Kinsale because there were no existing houses for comparison.

WJH Century Complete will also be building new homes off Houston Road on empty lots in the back of the Quail Ridge development where there are 73 developed lots. In this section, 32 homes have been built, ranging from $169,000 to about $228,000.

WJH Century Complete, which is currently building about 140 houses a year in Macon, sought approval for similar new plans to be constructed at 250 Sky Hawk Lane in Quail Ridge, right next to an existing house constructed of Hardiplank and brick veneer. That house originally sold for $219,000 in 2007 but is now valued at $185,000, according to the Macon-Bibb County Tax Assessors website.

“I don’t know what’s worse for the values, being next to eight empty lots, being the only house on the street or being next to something that significantly varies in quality?” Rogers asked in the pre-meeting before the hearing.

Enck is concerned about his Highlands neighborhood.

“I don’t even know what these new homes are going for, but I’m worried about property value,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. “If you start selling houses real cheap just to fill them up, you run the risk of bringing in some really bad people.”

Cliff Niederpruem, who represented WJH Century Complete at Monday’s hearing, told commissioners their houses run in the range of $150,000 – $170,000.

“We do have some larger porches for variation,” he said during the hearing. “Vinyl siding is a pretty normal thing for us in the Atlanta market, generally accepted by our buyers and neighbors. … It’s nice and neat when installed.”

Niederpruem said switching to higher-priced materials would “price many homeowners out of home buyership.”

He also noted that P&Z staff has not gotten any complaints about the dozens of new houses they have built in The Highlands in the last couple of years.

Commissioners were surprised to learn new plans were already being built without P&Z review, but staff apparently did not realize designs changed when they inadvertently issued permits for the cheaper materials.

Because the Highlands neighborhood wasn’t fully built out, it wasn’t ever turned over to an official Homeowners Association, Niederpruem said. Landowner Harold Groome did sign off on the house plans as long as they were at least 1,200 square feet, according to an email submitted to the commission.

While WJH Century Complete has been building dozens of homes among existing houses in The Highlands, the builders are now moving to other vacant lots in the subdivision. (Liz Fabian)

The houses built in the last two years have been interspersed with the older homes, but the builder is now moving to new sections.

“We want to do the right thing by you and then also the folks you represent out there, as well,” Niederpruem said. “We’re taking care of homeowners, putting new homeowners in new homes and taking care of some vacant land that has sat out there for quite some time.”

Rogers looked at comparative prices in the neighborhood before voting to approve.

“Seems to me like the market is already following that $78 a square foot from where we were looking at comps. If that’s how they can sell profitably, I imagine that is the only product you could build that can even get close to that.”

Enforcing the original material specifications would bring development to a halt again, Rogers feared.

“The market is not there for that product and the value is already being lost on the ones at that higher spec,” he said, before commissioners approved plans for all three neighborhoods.

Enck, who runs social media accounts and a website he created for The Highlands, believes it’s high time neighbors take control of the homeowners association to better protect their interests.

While there were no formal complaints to P&Z about the updated designs, neighbors have been talking among themselves about the new houses and should have had input on the designs, Enck said.

“I can understand (materials) being priced out, but have that conversation with us. As a neighborhood and a builder, let’s come together and agree what’s acceptable,” Enck said.

New Bloomfield event center on Harrison Road

Two fledgling business men are hoping to turn this old car wash into an event center at 6050 Harrison Road in west Bibb County. (Liz Fabian)

Two young men hoping to get their start in business brought plans for a new west Macon event center before planning and zoning commissioners Monday.

Jon’Riquez Grayer and Julius Ray Wilson sought conditional use approval to turn an old car wash into a community venue at 6050 Harrison Road, not far from the Walmart.

They want to “bring the community together and provide a safe environment for individuals to have a good time.”

Official Business Venue, or OB Venue, is just getting off the ground. The men say Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Virgil Watkins counseled the partners about applying for the proper licenses that they lacked when operating a car detail business in the old car wash. They shut down the detail shop, they said, once they realized they didn’t have the necessary approvals.

After hosting a couple of benefits, the men are hoping to provide a space for private events and game nights, sip and paint and other activities.

“The OB Venue is providing a fresh new spin on ‘lounging.’ We are a family and friend operated business with the goal of providing a ‘family reunion’ feel,” the application stated.

Commissioners had safety concerns, but Grayer and Wilson said they will have adequate security.

Rogers initially thought it was a “really bad idea” when he read about the project, but was impressed by their creativity as the men hope to renovate the building into a gathering place.

“Still have a whole lot more hoops to jump through,” Rogers told them. “You’re young and you’re ambitious and you’re trying to figure it out.”

The commission approved the conditional use permit as the first step for the event center.

Grayer and Wilson must secure a business license, get inspections and an alcohol license before they would be able to officially open.

Butane tanks approved for south Bibb

Macon-Bibb Planning and Zoning commissioners also approved rezoning for two butane tanks at 2476 Allen Road.

Vecenergy secured M-2 Heavy Industrial District zoning from M-1 Light Industrial to allow for the 30,000 gallon tanks for storage and distribution of butane during fall and winter months.

The butane will be mixed into gasoline to improve fuel efficiency for vehicles in the winter months, explained attorney Duke Groover during the hearing.

The company has secured approval from all regulatory agencies, he said.

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at [email protected] or 478-301-2976