The Opelika City Council passed a rezoning ordinance at its meeting on Tuesday that will allow a subdivision called Blackberry Reserve to be built at U.S. Highway 431 and Cusseta Road, across the street from Storybook Farm.
About a dozen citizens came to Tuesday night’s meeting to voice their opinions about the development.
Blackberry Reserve will be a neighborhood with 242 single-family homes on 166 acres. The developer, Trademark Quality Homes Inc., from Greenville, Ga., has plans to build 128 80-foot lots and 114 120-foot lots.
The vote passed 3-1. George Allen of Ward 1, Todd Rauch of Ward 5 and council president Eddie Smith of Ward 4 voted in favor of the rezoning ordinance, while Erica Baker Norris of Ward 2 voted against it.
Dena Little, the founder and executive director of Storybook Farm and several others asked for the vote to be postponed.
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“We cannot successfully coexist with the development as it has been presented to us and continue to contribute to the health of this community’s children,” Little said.
Storybook Farm is a non-profit organization that helps children impacted by adversity or disabilities to “reclaim the wonder of childhood through relationships with nature and animals,” according to the group’s website.
Little said she has spent 20 years dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged youth and children affected by adversity in the community, and that the farm moved from Auburn because of the development there.
“I’m not against this development,” she said. “It’s going to increase people and we’re in the business of serving people. Why would I want to limit that? All I’m asking for is time.”
While running the ministry in Auburn, Little was living in a high-density neighborhood that she said was “not compatible” with the mission of the farm, so she sold it and moved to her current location in Opelika.
“This is a battle that I thought I left in 2003 when I left Auburn,” she said.
Steven Ward, the development representative from Trademark Quality Homes, was quick to mention Storybook Farm in his remarks.
“We certainly appreciate what Storybook Farm does and we’re going to support them along the way,” he said. “I believe we can coexist and we’re taking the steps to reach out.”
Little voiced her concerns about liabilities and the lack of financial funds to build a fence.
Marty Williams, treasurer on the board of Storybook Farm, shared similar concerns. “We’re going to have about 600 cars that will be coming down one road. We have a liability to protect these kids. If a child gets kicked by a horse or if there something going on over there that spooks a horse with a child on it, it has a huge impact and risk.
Braxton Miller, an Opelika resident, spoke in favor of the rezoning ordinance and the construction of the neighborhood and said it will be a “definite win” for the city.
“The only issue I’ve heard with regard to this project is that the development will cause confusion, which will somehow impact the horses and the children,” Miller said.
Miller gave an example of an equestrian meet that had hundreds of cheering spectators and not a single horse got anxious or agitated.
“A friend of mine who is a retired professor from the School of Medicine told me that horses do not spook so easily as most people think, and that in a short time, they quickly adapt to repeated distractions and confusions.”
Miller believes this neighborhood will not only benefit the city’s revenue and create more jobs, but he said it will also bring more families to Storybook Farm.
“The estimated property taxes derived alone would amount to almost a quarter million dollars per year,” Miller said. “Once completed, the value of the 242 houses would be more that $70 million, not to mention the fact that those 242 families will be buying groceries, gas, utilizes, homeowners insurance and whatever else a family would need.”
Susan Haynes, the previous owner of the land, said that when her daughter moved to Opelika, she and her family struggled to find a home.
“We strongly feel that providing a neighborhood in that setting is a benefit to the entire community including Storybook Farm,” Haynes said. “A residential area here will allow more families to grow, work, educate their children and pay taxes. Neighborhoods attract families, and families are the cornerstone in this community.”
Rauch, of Ward 5, said the council has spent ample time discussing and considering the rezoning issue.
“If we do not rezone this property, it can still get developed,” Rauch said. “Then you’ve got a bigger issue on your hands.”
Rauch believes rezoning this area is the best solution and said Trademark Quality Homes compromised and agreed to double the buffer and fencing to block noise.
Ward, Trademark’s representative, said the original buffer was 25 feet, but they are planning on extending it to 50 feet. Trademark will also put up a fence behind each home as they’re completed, he said.
Allen, of Ward 1, said he thinks Storybook Farm and Blackberry Reserve can both inhabit the area peacefully.
“I truly believe you can coexist, and it will be better for the city of Opelika,” Allen said.