, Port Arthur, Texas

July 9, 2013

PA Council approves Edison Plaza complex

Sherry Koonce
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — In a meeting that was nearly derailed when three of Port Arthur’s City Council members got up and left their seats amidst accusations and personal insults, a proposed affordable housing project for the elderly was approved.

By a vote  of 5-3, City Council cleared the way for construction of the 128-unit Edison Square complex to be built on a 15-acre tract of property where the old Edison Middle School stood until about two years ago.

The vote was not the supermajority that had been expected to be required.

A month ago, after the city’s planning and zoning commission recommended a zoning change from two family residential to multiple family residential, City Council opted to table the vote when citizens living in the area voiced opposition.

At the time, 26 percent of those living within 200 feet of the proposed project objected to the housing project in their neighborhood. Because the number was greater than 20 percent, a supermajority vote, or seven out of the nine the council members, was required.

At Tuesday’s meeting that number changed when Council voted to accept new signatures from some of the neighbors who have since changed their minds on the matter, and were no longer in opposition.

With the newest data, there were only 18.93 percent of the immediate neighbors opposing the project, compared to the previous 26 percent.

“I don’t know if these people were coerced, or paid to change their signatures,” Willie “Bae” Lewis Jr., District 5 councilman, said.

Lewis, along with District 1 Councilman Raymond  Scott Jr, and Robert Troy, District 4 councilman, voted against allowing the new signatures to be accepted, charging that only those submitted when the proposed ordinance was tabled a month ago should be allowed.

“It’s too late, the door was closed. Now they are trying to lower the vote from a super majority. How did you manipulate them? With money?” Lewis said.

At a Monday workshop City Attorney Val Tizeno said the city had no process in place to establish a cut-off date for signatures for or against a proposed zoning ordinance.

Without one, Council could decide to accept new signatures, Tizeno said.

On Tuesday, Tizeno warned that at least three of the new signatures came with conditions such as age and residency requirements —none of which the city could regulate.

Tizeno said the Texas Municipal League had advised the city to stay with the original signatures since the conditional language could open the city up to future litigation.

Prior to the vote, Lewis asked the Mayor Deloris “Bobbie” Prince to recuse herself from voting. The request started a heated exchange between the two.

“I feel it is a conflict of interest since the mayor appointed all the housing authority members,” Lewis said.

The mayor responded she had not been involved with the dealings the Housing Authority had regarding Edison Square.

“You call them on the phone and tell them how to vote,” Lewis said.

“You will not sit up there and call a lie on me,” Prince said.

“She has no business voting on this issue,” Lewis said.

“What he is saying is not true,” Prince said.

Tizeno said it was up to the individual council member to decide whether they needed to recuse themselves, not other city council member.

“Mr. Lewis, you are deliberately trying to derail this meeting,” Prince said.

“Your going to do what the hell you are going to do anyway; you got the votes,” Lewis said.

Later in the meeting, after a motion was on made to accept the new signatures, Lewis, Scott and Troy left their seats, resulting in the loss of a quorum.

The trio returned to their seats about 15 minutes later when District 3 Councilman Morris Albright III arrived mid-way through the meeting.

“We broke the quorum to kill that amendment, then when Albright got off the elevator we came back to get on public record to oppose what they were doing,” Lewis said.

Position 8 Councilman Kerry “Twin” Thomas recused himself from the vote, citing a potential conflict of interest since his daughter works at O.W. Collins, another elderly apartment complex in Port Arthur that has been compared unfavorably to Edison.

Prince has stated she is in favor of the housing project because of the city’s aging population, and the Edison’s site’s close proximity to hospitals, grocery stores, drug stores, and the like.

At Tuesday’s meeting, developer Ike Akbari said his company had selected the site after the city asked them to find a suitable location south of Texas 73.

The company does not have another, more suitable, site, Akbari said.

The land is currently owned by Port Arthur Independent School District, but is in the process of being sold to the Port Arthur Housing Authority and will be developed by Akbari’s company, ITEX Group, LLD.

City Council also on Tuesday approved construction of Park Central, a second affordable housing project. Park Central is to be built at 2500 FM 365 to relocate Carver Terrace residents.

City Council also approved a resolution in support of the developer making application for housing tax credits.

Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs has until July 25 to determine which projects will receive housing credits.

Tax credits are awarded to eligible participants to offset a portion of federal tax liability in exchange for the production or preservation of affordable rental housing. The value associated with the tax credits allows residences in HTC developments to be leased to qualified households at below market rental rates.

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