The partially-built Wildwood subdivision is expected to remain that way for a while longer.
An Atlanta developer, The Ardent Companies, wants to restart home building in the Covington subdivision, which has 53 homes and 34 lots ready for homes, but the company doesn’t want to pay to build the second entrance required by the International Fire Code and, therefore, by city ordinances.
The Covington Planning Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to deny Ardent’s request to amend the zoning conditions for the subdivision. Ardent had hoped — and still hopes — an alternative could be found to provide better access to emergency vehicles without building a second road. But planning commission members expressed skepticism and said existing and any new residents need to be protected.
The planning commission doesn’t have the authority to make a final decision, but its vote will go to the Covington City Council as a recommendation to deny the request. The council will have the final say at its 6:30 p.m. meeting on Monday.
Ardent representative Todd Terwilliger has set up a Friday morning meeting with the fire marshal and other city officials, Covington Fire Marshal Tony Smith said Thursday, presumably in the hope of presenting an alternative to the City Council before its final vote.
Ardent officials had actually requested a deferral of its zoning amendment request to another meeting, but planning commission members were unconvinced any option besides building a second entrance would meet the needs of the neighborhood.
Under the International Fire Code, housing developments of a certain size must have two ways to enter and leave the development so that emergency vehicles can still access the neighborhood if one way is blocked, according to Smith.
There are some exceptions that can be approved by the local fire marshal, including installing sprinkler systems in every house. However, Smith said in a follow-up interview Wednesday that wouldn’t be an option because not all of the 53 existing Wildwood homes have sprinkler systems.
"At this point, the city, although we don’t want to hold back any progress as far as development, we really need to take care of the things that should have been taken care of many years ago," Smith said Wednesday.
The 256-acre subdivision property was annexed from Newton County to Covington in 2006, and home building began in 2007. The remaining undeveloped land is approximately 189 acres, according to the Newton County Tax Assessor’s office. Original plans called for up to 550 houses to be built in the subdivision.
Wildwood residents packed city hall for the planning commission meeting, and they all expressed a desire to see a second entrance built. In addition, current subdivision build-out plans call for another entrance that would connect a road at the back of the development, Scenic Parkway S.E., to a road in the Highgrove neighborhood, Eagles Parkway, which runs next to Eastside High School.
Part of residents’ frustration stems from the fact that a second entrance has been promised for many years. According to Senior Planner Scott Gaither, the undeveloped portion of the neighborhood has changed hands multiple times — most recently from First State Bank, which was closed by the FDIC in January 2012, to Hamilton State Bank.
As with many subdivisions built during the housing boom of the late 2000s, promises by developers went unfulfilled after companies went bankrupt. Originally, the development was allowed to start without a second entrance, because it was promised one would be built later on — first off of U.S. Highway 278 and later to connect to Highgrove.
Wildwood resident Shawn Walker said when the city experienced an ice storm a few years back, cars were unable to get up a steep portion of Scenic Parkway and were stuck in their neighborhood. Similarly, when a car broke down on one side of the road — which consists of two, divided one-lane roads — residents were afraid to travel the wrong way down the other side because of the steep hills and limited sightlines.
"The safety of people comes first," he said.
Developer R.J. Fields presented on behalf of Ardent because he had experience with the project previously, but his presence didn’t seem to help.
Planning Commission member John Travis, who made the motion to deny, said the issue has been brought up over and over again since 2002 — when the land was originally rezoned to residential — but no developer has yet been able or willing to build a second road.
Gaither presented a history of the subdivision, citing multiple attempts over the years to find an alternative to building a second road. The city’s staff recommended denial of an amendment request as well at Tuesday’s meeting.
"These conditions were placed upon the property to protect the surrounding properties and property owners, to enhance and control the growth experienced by Newton County and the City of Covington during this time, to provide a safe and attractive place for people to live, and to uphold the integrity of the community," the city’s official staff recommendation said.
"Staff does not see the need nor can support any amendment to the stated conditions of zoning, as any change could undo 10 years of agreements and cooperation with the surrounding property owners and Newton County Board of Commissioners."