By Tia Lynn Lecorchick staff writer

The Madison City Council voted down two hotly-debated zoning applications from one applicant, Robert Benford, after a three-hour heated public hearing, in which family members, neighbors and prominent community members argued for and against the applications, on August 11.

The applications requested the relocation of two mobile homes, one to 815 Pearl Street and the other to 701 Eliza Morris Street, just 200 yards away from their current locations on Garnett St. and Eliza Morris St. Although the distance is short, the relocation would put two more mobile homes in the Canaan district of Madison, an area targeted by the city for revitalization. The opposition expressed concern that the addition of more mobile homes to the area would adversely affect property values and opportunities for federal grants to revitalize the neighborhood. The first application was denied with a 3-to-1 vote.

Council Members Chris Hodges, Bobby Crawford and Joe Diletto voted to uphold the planning commission recommendation to deny the zoning application, while Rick Blanton voted against upholding the planning commission’s recommendation. The second application resulted in a tie, with Blanton and Crawford voting to reject the planning commission’s recommendation for denial and Hodges and Blanton voting to uphold the planning commission’s decision.

Mayor Fred Perriman broke the tie, reluctantly siding with the planning commission, voting to deny Benford’s zoning application. “Sometime we have to make tough decisions,” said Perriman. “But the city has put a lot of time and effort into cleaning up this neighborhood. The DDA has worked tirelessly to make sure we receive funds to revitalize this neighborhood…I regret that this family is going to be evicted, but that is not why we are here tonight.

Because I have seen so much time go into this project, I to cast my vote with the two council members to deny this,” said Perriman. “You say you are for building up this community, but a community is made up of people, and you just put out people,” said Mike Williams, Benford’s son. “I don’t have all the facts and I don’t know all the rules. That’s why we came here. But one thing I do, you are throwing a whole family away,” said a devastated Williams. “You aren’t putting out houses, you are putting out people, and that is not right,” said Barry Massey, Benford’s son-in-law.

Robert Benford, 71, owns the two mobile homes, but was renting the lot owned by Ernie Jackson, who is evicting the family off his property on Aug. 20 for alleged back-due rent. Benford hoped to move his two homes up the street to two lots he was set to purchase from Ivey Henry, but a zoning application needed to be approved by the city council before the Benford would buy the lot.

Sabrina Benford and Regina Massey, daughters of Benford who live in the mobile homes, pleaded with the council to approve the application. “We are being evicted from the property, but please don’t evict us from the city of Madison, too. This is our home,” said an emotional Massey, also pointing out their low-income and her husband being disabled. “We are being evicted,” reiterated Sabrina Benford. “We cannot afford to go out of the city. It would be detrimental to us.

I am begging and pleading that you allow us to move up the street to 815 Pear Street, in the community we already live in. We are just trying to get a home for our mobile home, to give my baby an address, to be a family there.” Barry Massey noted the family has lived in this neighborhood for the last 14 years and do not want to leave it.

Councilman Joe DiLetto noted that his vote must be in service of the bigger picture. “My decision has to be made, not for the benefit of one or two people, but for the benefit of the community,” said Diletto, before voting to deny the applications. A distraught Robert Benford was appalled by the accusations that his homes would bring property value down. “There are 18 trailers in the community already. If it was going to bring the property values down, it should have already done it.

Why would moving our homes from one corner to the other corner of the street bring the values down? Our trailers are worth more than some of the houses in the neighborhood,” said Benford. Laura Butler, president of the Morgan County Chapter of the NAACP, spoke in favor of Benford’s application, as well as local resident Betty Thomas, and Aaron Carter, a local Baptist preacher. “I recommend you go ahead and pass this. I believe in doing the right thing,” said Butler.

“These people are about to be evicted. I don’t have all the fact but my heart is broken. Let’s come together as a community and put away this foolishness. “This property has been vacant for years, just a raggedy house and yard with nothing but mud,” said Thomas.“When you look up and down Pearl Street, the Benford’s homes cannot hurt the value, it can’t do nothing but help.” Thomas insisted that it is the houses that are already in the area that ruin the neighborhood, not the mobile homes. “Their mobile homes look nice, and they upkeep their property and yard, and make it look nice. Their presence would help the neighborhood.”

The opposition, which included Sherry Terrell Alexander, board member of the Madison-Morgan Chamber of Commerce, Teresa Belcher, of First Procurement Solutions, Ernie Jackson, property owner in the neighborhood and current landlord of the Benfords, spoke out against the Benford’s application.

They cited fears of depreciating property values, the future precedent that would be set of more mobile homes coming to the neighborhood, and causing potential jeopardy to a pending urban development housing grant for $250,000 that the city is currently applying for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA).

The city hopes to use the funds for the revitalizing of the Canaan neighborhood, removing abandoned and dilapidated houses and cleaning up the area. “I have great empathy for Sabrina and her family. I don’t want to see them evicted, to leave the city of Madison. But since I have come to office, my focus has been to show as much focus and attention to cleaning up Pearl Street as possible…We are seeing a revitalization of Pearl Street.

It’s a concerted effort of mine. I don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that,” said Hodges. “This breaks my heart,” said Alexander. “I know these people. I go to church with them. But we worked very hard on the revitalization there and to get federal and state grants, we have make decisions to improve our neighborhood. Everybody deserves a place to live, but this is not the highest and best use for that property.”

Councilman Rick Blanton was hesitant to entertain the potential unintended consequences of approving the applications, wondering if that was really the purview of the council in this matter on zoning requirements. Blanton asked how the Benford’s application did not fulfill the necessary requirements for zoning.

“I just don’t see where the criteria necessary for this application have not been met in this case,” said Blanton.“These can be subjective, but based on these areas, it looks as if it meets approval. And based on the city staff comment, it appears to me, the staff feels the same way.” But Blanton’s point of view would not prevail in the end. The Benfords have until Aug. 20 to find a new place to live.