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Philippi housing project hits snag

by James Fisher

REGIONAL WRITER

PHILIPPI -- By a 3-2 vote Wednesday night, Philippi City Council denied building permits for a California-based non-profit company that had proposed building a low-income housing development in North Philippi.

Councilman John Cvechko, who owns property adjacent to the proposed site, said he voted against the permits for several reasons.

"Some of the permits they need, we don't have yet," he said Thursday. "The people who live in the district I'm in are 100 percent against it. It's a quiet neighborhood with not much traffic and we're just not for it."

City officials had two public meetings on the proposal and several residents spoke out against the development at the last meeting on Nov. 13.

City Manager Alana Maddox said she had informed officials from Opportunity Builders about the council's decision and still is waiting for a response from the company.

Opportunity spokesman Matt Thomas, who attended the Nov. 13 meeting, did not return a telephone message left at his office Thursday.

Cvechko was unsure if the company can reapply for the building permit at a later date.

At the November meeting, several residents raised numerous questions about the proposed development, including the economic impact of the project on property values, the effect on basic infrastructure and increased traffic flow in the area.

Cvechko also was concerned that the development could increase water drainage problems that already exist in the area.

"When you disturb land, dig up the dirt and blacktop, it makes the water move that much faster," he said.

Council member Barbara Bryan, who also voted against the permit, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Don Criss, who cast the third no vote, declined to comment.

Neither council member who wanted to approve the permit, Bob Wilkins and Lisa Byrne, could be reached for comment.

It is unclear how the permit denial will affect Opportunity Builder's plans, since the federal funding they use for construction is site specific. Thomas explained during the Nov. 13 meeting that the company receives federal tax credits for building low-income housing, which are then sold to for-profit companies to generate cash flow. The tax credits are based on the site selected for construction and cannot be transferred to another site.

Opportunity Builders also is constructing a similar complex in Buckhannon, called Cambridge Heights, which should be open to renters by late December.

Earlier this year, members of the Upshur County Landlords Association opposed the development. The city's late mayor, Elizabeth Poundstone, ruled at the time that because the company had filed all the proper permits and paid the fees, the construction could not be blocked.

Thomas said Opportunity Builders developments in other states also were protested, but residents soon came to realize that the projects were good for the community.

"I see it as an educational process," he said at the Nov. 13 meeting. "People hear low-income housing and a certain image comes to mind. People just don't realize what we're trying to do. I appreciate their concerns, but this is something I wouldn't mind having in my own back yard."

Cambridge Heights is a series of two-story apartments with a community building that includes a computer center for residents and their children, and an on-site manager. The Philippi development would have been very similar.

Renters who meet income qualifications have a set monthly rent that does not change as income increases, Thomas said. The developments are intended to create the opportunity for renters to save enough money to become homeowners some day, not to be permanent homes, he said.

Regional writer James Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at jfisher@exponent-telegram.com.

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