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02/24/2021

Another Step Closer to Rebuilding

HWY 72 aerial

Source:  The Robesonian

LUMBERTON - A 72-unit Lumberton Housing Authority development received a critical vote of approval Wednesday from Lumberton City Council.

During a special called meeting, Council approved the rezoning of property on Caton Road from heavy manufacturing to residential multi-family so the public housing complex can be built there. The property is adjacent to the Robeson County Department of Social Services, just northwest of Glen Cowan Road.

The vote came after a brief discussion, during which LHA Executive Director Adrian Lowery answered questions about the development's potential impact on crime, the environment and local schools.

Councilman Eric Chavis said he'd received comments from area residents concerning "riff-raff" at the development and asked how the LHA handles crime at its properties.

Lowery said application requirements from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for all public housing include a criminal background check and a credit report. Methamphetamine-related offenses and sex crimes automatically disqualify any applicant.

"A lot of people assume because its public housing, that it's the housing of last resort and anyone that applies can get it," Lowery said. "That most certainly is not the case."

The Authority has studied 911 calls originating from its properties, and the vast majority of those calls are not related to crime, Lowery said. Of the ones that are crime-related, about 90% have nothing to do with that property's residents. Lowery gave the example of traffic stops that happened to occur at or just outside the property.

There is a dedicated safety officer who monitors the LHA's locations, and the Lumberton Police Department also patrols those areas, Lowery said.

"This doesn't mean that we're crime-free, but I can show you a video of someone trying to break in to Sheriff Burnis Wilkins' car over in The Oaks, so crime does occur everywhere," Lowery said.

On the environment, after Chavis asked about flooding concerns, Lowery said it is a HUD requirement to do an environmental review before spending any federal money in development, and that takes place early in the process, before the LHA could purchase the property.

This not only ensures the property will have no adverse effects on the surrounding community, but also that the land and environment will have no negative impact on future LHA tenants at the site, Lowery said.

Lowery also said the development will have no adverse effect on public schools after Chavis raised that concern. The LHA reached out to the Public Schools of Robeson County during the development process, and the school system said there would be no negative impact on schools when a large number of residents are added as tenants, Lowery said.

Students living at the property would be zoned to attend W.H. Knuckles Elementary School, Carroll Middle School, Lumberton Junior High School and Lumberton Senior High School.

Because 91% of current LHA applicants are from Robeson County the vast majority of students would not be coming into Robeson County's schools from out of district, but simply, potentially, transferring from school to school within PSRC, Lowery said.

Out of the 729 total public-housing units managed by the LHA, 172 are still uninhabitable because of damage caused by Hurricane Matthew, Lowery said. This adds some urgency to getting new units built and operating.

"It's been a very frustrating process (since the Hurricane Matthew)," Lowery said. "We've had a request in now for an extension for FEMA funding, which will be essential to this. We're expecting to hear back from that, if not by the end of this week, the first of next week. We feel that that's going to be extended into 2023. This is very time sensitive."

Of the 72 units, plans are for 16 to be one-bedroom units, 40 to be two-bedroom units and 16 to be three-bedroom units, according to LHA's written presentation to the Council, which is part of the meeting's public record.

After the discussion, Chavis made the motion to approve the rezoning request. Council voted 7-0 in favor of the motion. Councilman Leroy Rising did not cast a vote because he was presiding over the meeting in Mayor Bruce Davis' absence.

Council also approved a conditional use permit for property at 307 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive for the operation of a government office. The LHA plans to use the location for office space.

The LHA has been renting office space since its previous location was damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Lowery previously stated the location was desirable to the LHA because it sits within 1 mile of half its residents.

Councilman John Cantey raised the question of how vehicles entering the facility could affect traffic in the area, particularly since it is adjacent to a railroad crossing. Lowery said the LHA is working on plans with The Wooten Company and will also seek Council's input later in the project, but that plans are to construct some fencing to help direct traffic through the area. This will include access points off both Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Edens Avenue.

"We really want to be a fire to redevelopment of MLK (Drive) and (Highway) 41, so if we do come back with something there we'll be looking for something very much modern," Lowery said.

The motion, made by Cantey, passed 7-0.

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