Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Much ado about nothing?

Sebree residents don't think so

J-E Editor
Sebree area residents wishing to block the development of an apartment complex in their area met with the Webster County Industrial Development Authority (IDA) last Tuesday night to express their concerns. But their pleas went unheeded, which in the eyes of the law may be the only way things could have gone.
With many among their group carrying signs reading ‘Vote No’, a handful of residents voiced their concern over a proposed apartment building, which is being developed by JEM Development, a company owned and operated by Sebree resident Mark Moser and his wife. Speakers voiced their concerns over various topics, including disease, over crowding at Sebree Elementary School and a lack of transportation. 

Only one, however, addressed the issue that was actually on the table, that being whether the IDA’s sale of property to JEM was legitimate.
At their October meeting, the IDA approved the sale of a tract of land near the intersection of US 41 and Old Slaughters Road to JEM for the sum of $82,500. That land was previously held by the County, through the IDA as part of the Sebree Industrial Park. Many in the community argued that the IDA should have notified residents that the topic was up for discussion.
“Are those meetings made public?” Tabor asked. “Are they advertised in the paper so that the public knows when they are?”
IDA chairman Steve Whitsell confirmed that the meeting dates are not, in fact, advertised in the paper. However, under Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 61.820, public agencies and any committees or subcommittees of those agencies are required to meet on a specific schedule. That schedule must be available to the public by request. Public agencies are only required to advertise special or ‘called’ meetings (KRS 61.823), which meet at a different location or on a different date then their normal meeting. The October meeting was at the regularly scheduled time.
The deed of sale between IDA and JEM was entered at the Webster County Courthouse on November 4, 2014, meaning that the sale is already final. Even if the board had voted to reverse their decision to sell the property, they would likely have had to go to court in order to get the sale reversed.
In the end, Sebree residents were even further angered when the IDA voted without one word of discussion amongst themselves. Board member Mark Moser excused himself from the vote, which was 3-1 in favor of reaffirming IDA’s original decision. Herman Hawkins was the lone vote against.
Other Concerns
While most of the speakers did not address the legitimacy of IDA’s sale of the property, they did discuss a number of other issues.
Sebree-based nurse practitioner Connie Skinner asked the board if the proposed apartment building was being built for Burmese immigrants who are going to work for Tyson, which has been one of the rumors that has been circulating.
“These apartments are for anybody who can work out a contract with JEM,” said board chairman Steve Whitsell.
“I’ve talked to the health department, and they said if they are Burmese, this isn’t a good idea,” Skinner responded. “From a medical standpoint, this just isn’t a good idea.”
Newly elected Sebree city council member Jana Forker addressed the board, making it clear that she spoke as a private citizen, not as a representative of the council. Forker has been involved in fighting the project since it was first proposed last summer.
“When these apartments were first proposed in Sebree, they were going to be built by my house,” she said. “At that point the citizens of Sebree started a petition. It has 280 signatures on it of people who don’t want the apartment building built. The property next to me, where the building was going to be built belonged to Tyson, but ended up in the hands of Mark Moser.”
Forker said that even after Moser took possession of the property, Tyson continued to mow and maintain it.
In an interview in July, Moser said that Tyson was not involved in the project. He told the J-E, “We are purchasing the property from (Tyson). This project is not geared towards any certain industry. We have people that work at several plants around our area that drive long distances to get here. Maybe some of them would be interested in renting an apartment closer to where they work.”
However, in a separate interview around the same time, Judge Executive Jim Townsend, who appoints board members but is not a voting member, said that in his original proposal the IDA was told that Tyson Foods had promised that they could feel the apartments for up to three years if they were available.
Another Sebree council member, Deb Stull, pressed the IDA about how building the apartments outside of town near the compaction center would impact the Burmese immigrants if they were placed in that area.
“You bring a group of people who don’t drive and drop them off by the compaction center, who is going to pock them up?” she asked. “Judge Townsend has said that the children will be picked up by a school bus. What about the parents? This isn’t doing them any good either.”
The school was another hot issue. Anthony Blue pressed the board for more information.
“Where are these children going to go to school?” he asked. “The school isn’t big enough already.”
He closed his time on the floor by telling the IDA, “All we’re worried about is what’s good for this county.  But you’re not worried about what’s good for the people.”
Webster County Magistrate Jerry ‘Poogie’ Brown warned IDA members that the residents of Webster County had lost faith in them.
The JEM project first came to light in June of 2014. By that time Moser had already secured $1.5 million in funding for the project.
“We’re not taking any Section 8 or Kentucky Housing money at all,” said Moser. “The project is solely owned by JEM Development, and we’re getting our financing from one of the banks in Sebree.”
Information later received from the GRADD office showed that Moser’s original proposal showed $850,000 of the $1.5 mil had been financed through loans from GRADD and EDA, not the local bank.
The original building plan included four brick apartment buildings that would each house eight 800 square foot units with two bedrooms. There was also a complex office, a laundry building, a picnic area and a playground in the plans.
In a statement to the J-E in July, when he withdrew a request to have property in Sebree rezoned to accommodate the structure, Moser wrote:
“We began this project because of our love for our community, never imagining we would have to combat rumors and misinformation. We believe this misinformation has caused a lot of hardships and hard feelings in our community. Out of our love for Sebree, we felt that it was time to stop this process.  We still believe that this would have been a great project and would have generated a lot of revenue for the City of Sebree and the local business’s.”

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