VALDOSTA -- The three new City Council members had little time to relish their new positions Thursday as a highly contentious rezoning proposal dominated the agenda.

More than 50 concerned residents attended the meeting to protest a proposed subdivision at the corner of Forrest Street and Highland Heights Drive, across from Valdosta High School.

Council postponed a vote on developer Bill Altman's proposal to create a 51-unit single-family residential subdivision on an eight-acre parcel, to give residents time to meet with Altman over the site plan.

Both planners with the South Georgia Regional Development Center and the Greater Lowndes Planning Commission recommended approval for the project, and the Council looked poised to follow suit, meaning the delay could amount to little more than a stay of execution.

Any changes to the site plan would require the matter return to both the RDC and the Planning Commission for reapproval, making major modifications to the proposal unlikely.

Council will revisit the issue at its Feb. 7 meeting, and will have the option of proceeding straight to a vote, or reopening the public hearing.

Current zoning for the area makes the case unique. The area is presently zoned Residential-Professional -- a zoning classification that allows a host of uses. Altman is seeking to make the property Planned Residential Development-10, a more restrictive classification.

The problem for both planners and Council is that if rezoning is denied, Altman could undertake a much more intensive development as a matter of right. R-P zoning would allow up to 97 multi-family apartment units, or smaller single-family homes. Neither use would be allowed under PRD-10.

The Planning Commission and RDC planners characterized approval as the lesser of two evils, noting that any concerns expressed by residents would be compounded by high density multi-family development.

Residents expressed fears about depressed property values, traffic and water runoff as a result of the project, in addition to concerns that the subdivision would be out of character with the larger homes of the surrounding neighborhood. They compared the project to similar developments such as the Blue Pool subdivision off Bemiss Road, and noted how that subdivision had transitioned from live-in owners to a largely renting population.

Residents also submitted a petition opposing the development, with 64 people signing on.

Pope Langdale, Altman's representative, said the project would more closely resemble the Quail Rise or Georgetown subdivisions, neither of which harmed area property values while remaining live-in communities.

Langdale also noted that the proposal was more restrictive than requirements, even under PRD-10 standards.

In an attempt to mitigate some of the neighborhood concerns, Altman agreed to buffering requirements, minimum house sizes of 1,200 heated square feet, and to conserve existing trees and vegetation to enhance greenspace.

Residents inquired about the possibility of the city initiating rezoning of the property to prevent any high density development, similar to the R-6 zoning review currently under way in which the city hopes to rezone various chunks of land to reflect current land use patterns.

But City Attorney George Talley noted that the process takes a minimum of 45 days, and that, with a valid site plan, Altman could pull permits and start construction on an apartment complex immediately.

While much of the area directly behind and to the south of the site has restrictive single-family zoning, the land on the opposite side of Highland Heights is zoned Cluster-Commercial -- a county zoning standard that also allows high-density, multi-family developments. Also, a large parcel of land across Forrest Street is zoned for commercial use.

To contact reporter Bill Roberts, please call 244-3400, ext. 245.

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