"I don't understand the stigma of duplexes" Council debates as residents fight "renter's row" at Huston

by Charles Gerian

The Blackwell City Council met Thursday night for an extended meeting, where a proposed housing development at the former Huston School site was discussed and ultimately approved.

At the beginning of the meeting, Heather Shepherd, wife of Councilman Chad Shepherd, spoke in the public comments against the proposed development. The development was the topic of heated debate in the city Planning Commission meeting prior to the Council meeting.

“I’m concerned if these don’t get rented, what will happen?” Heather Shepherd asked. “Will it go to Section Eight housing? … I didn’t buy the house I’m living in to live by Section Eight housing. There’s nothing wrong with it, but we all try to purchase places that we want to live, and I didn’t want to live on a street that would be ‘Renter’s Row.’ I don’t want to live next door to a bunch of rental properties.”

She then asked if the streets could handle more traffic, and if the sewer and water lines could hold up under an added group of duplexes.

“I’m aware there was a school there, but I’m talking every-day use by multiple families,” she said.

Next was Kenny Jackson, another resident in the neighborhood, who came to address his concerns. He said “every person” he talked to was not happy about the duplex development because their kids played at the Huston School playground.

The Council then heard reports from city officials. Melissa Hudson, director of the Top of Oklahoma Museum, said the school room, military room and bathroom floors would be redone. Hudson said she aims for the rooms to be done in time for Homecoming, which is a huge draw for business. Hudson also plans to update the patio area with barn quilts and artwork. City Manager Jerry Wieland praised Hudson and the museum.

The Council then turned its attention to the school-sized elephant in the room: the Huston Center site and the proposed duplex development.

City Attorney Bryce Kennedy brought up the protest letters, surmising that the complaints mostly stemmed from the desire to keep the property as-is for recreation.

Freedom Homes’ Jimbo Carnley approached the Council.

“We like building in Blackwell and supporting Blackwell,” he said. “If you took [Jerry Wieland] and put him in every community, progress would be so much greater across the board. There’s a lot of good things in Blackwell.”

The 12,050-square-foot-per-side duplexes would be completed in two phases, starting in the playground area, then finishing where school is located. The homes would face Russell Avenue and Vinnedge Avenue.

Councilman Jon Webb asked why the company chose to develop the area for duplexes rather than homes. Carnley replied that homes are harder to sell, and the needs of the market in Blackwell lean more towards duplex rentals.

The topic of covenants and future-proofing the aesthetics of the neighborhood came up. Carnley said that Freedom Homes would put strict covenants in place to ensure that, in the event Freedom Homes ever sold the property, the new owners would take care of it.

Councilman Chad Shepherd voiced his displeasure with the development once again. He said the City of Blackwell would lack the ability to enforce any covenants down the line.

Carnley asked how a person would control single-family houses having boats, RV campers, jacks and cars in their front yards that belong to other families in residential neighborhoods.

“I know our clientele, but what about how the rest of the area treats their property?” Carnley asked.

Webb said there is “no question” that Blackwell needs new housing, adding that people seeking work will live in Ponca City instead because of a lack of housing availability in Blackwell.

Webb asked, hypothetically, why the development couldn’t be placed on the property across from the hospital. City Attorney Bryce Kennedy responded, saying the City of Blackwell was cultivating several offers for property throughout the city for commercial and residential development. The Huston development, with the offer from Freedom Homes, was the most cost-efficient one.

On the subject of the Huston building, Wieland reiterated what he told the planning commission, saying the city is applying for a grant with the State of Oklahoma to remove the asbestos and lead for more than $200,000.

“We don’t want Huston to look like Parkside or Washington [schools],” Councilman Robert Husted said. He was referring to two other former school sites that have been abandoned and are now seriously dilapidated.

The subject of the neighborhood’s roads was brought up. Chad Shepherd said the area has several water line leaks each year. Heather Shepherd spoke up from the audience and said the street “is horrible.”

Chad Shepherd once again said he would prefer single-family housings, to which Mayor T.J. Greenfield responded.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone coming in here wanting to build 16 single-family homes,” Greenfield said. “We have someone here that is willing to start with a $1.3 million project leading to a $4 million investment. They’re wanting to put in all that money and, on our end, we’re getting rid of a dilapidated structure. There’s an economic benefit to the city to have that done. There’s a desperate need here for good housing.”

Carnley said duplexes aren’t all Freedom Homes is building, as evidenced by its homes on Doolin. The company applied for the city’s first new housing development permit in more than 30 years.

Shepherd said the school being there is the only reason the area hadn’t been developed.

“If the school wasn’t there, we might have people that want to build there,” he said.

“We’re talking over almost a decade that property has sat there,” Greenfield said. “Nobody has sought to develop that.”

“Because the school is there,” Shepherd argued.

“I don’t know what the stigma or judgment is around a duplex that is going to be well-maintained versus a single-family home is,” Greenfield said. “You’re still going to have single families, just with a dividing wall between them.”

Shepherd again brought up the concept that there would be no control over the state of the duplexes if they were sold by Freedom Homes.

Greenfield asked what the guarantee would be if Shepherd’s home was sold and if it was run down by the next occupants.

“It’s still a single-family house that will be maintained,” Shepherd said.

Carnley spoke again, urging the Council to consider the benefit to the community and not just the personal or emotional feelings involved with homeowners in the area. The company will locally source its lumber and material purchases, and the sales tax revenue would be beneficial to the city.

To address concerns about the loss of the school’s playground, Carnley said the company would build two less lots. In their place would be a park area.

The housing development from Freedom Homes was ultimately approved by the Blackwell City Council, voting 4-1.

In other business, the Council reappointed Ralph Gose to a three-year term on the Blackwell-Tonkawa Airport Authority Board and then reappointed Karen Ware, Megan Childers, Lydia Ashford and Tiffany Schuermann to three-year terms on the Blackwell Youth Center board.

The Council also reappointed Mike Loftis to a three-year term on the Blackwell Industrial Authority Board. Rebecca Hutton and Julia Steuver were reappointed to the Blackwell Public Library Board, and Loftis was reappointed as a trustee of the Blackwell Public Trust.