Central Mayor Jr. Shelton said Thursday that a lawsuit against him over a planned upscale development is an attempt to smear his political image and that he is not overly concerned about other threats from residents such as a Facebook group for recall elections.
Shelton denied claims by plaintiffs in the suit — David Freneaux, Michael Mannino and Michael Stephens — that he has ignored the public by supporting the traditional neighborhood development that will bring 700 housing units to the small city. He said he has received numerous messages from residents in the past few days who said they support him and are excited about the future Settlement on Shoe Creek traditional neighborhood development.
“I have been run over with people who have called me, wanting to know when the lots are gonna be available, when can I buy a lot,” Shelton said. “I’ve had lots of young professionals who I have come to meet through my job as mayor, who have said, ‘Mayor I’m gonna move to Central if they build those apartments there.’ ”
Shelton, the City Council members named in the suit and Planning and Zoning attorney Mark Balkin say they carefully followed the city’s zoning code while drafting plans for Shoe Creek, LLC. The zoning code says a “planned unit development” such as Shoe Creek can depart from the city’s otherwise strict density rules as long as it does not endanger public health, safety, morals, comfort or general welfare.
The lawsuit interprets the code differently, claiming the development’s 250 planned apartments are more than six times above what is allowed under the city’s density rules.
Prescott Bailey, of Southern Lifestyle Development, the firm developing Shoe Creek, said Thursday that he does not expect legal disputes to slow down the development. Shoe Creek is still in its planning phase, has a list of potential commercial tenants and hopes to break ground by the end of 2015 or early 2016, he said.
Shoe Creek also entered the lawsuit on Thursday, backing Shelton and the council members.
“Shoe Creek, LLC has invested considerable resources and countless hours in preparing for the construction and development of this roughly $250 million project, and any delay in construction will cause Shoe Creek, LLC considerable damages including, but not limited to, excessive construction costs and lost profits,” the company says in its petition to the court to intervene in the case.
Seth Dornier, the attorney for residents suing to block the development, said the lawsuit wasn’t “politically motivated,” as Shelton claims, and wasn’t intended to harm anyone.
“It does not seek damages in any way,” Dornier said. “What the plaintiffs seek is simple, is that the city of Central must follow the law. Particularly, they must follow their own law and their own code of ordinances.”
Shelton acknowledged that the rumor mill has taken off in the close-knit community because of the controversy over the development. He said the termination of Chief Administrative Officer David Barrow earlier this month was absolutely not related to disagreements over the development, despite rumors to the contrary.
“It doesn’t work anymore,” Shelton said about his professional relationship with Barrow, declining to elaborate. He has not hired a new chief administrative officer yet.
Barrow did not return a message asking for comment.
When Shelton was asked if he believes it’s possible residents might seek to recall him over the development — which they have threatened via social media — he said “anything’s possible.” However, he said he’s not losing sleep over it. He said his biggest concern is using taxpayer money to defend Central’s leaders in the legal battle.
“This, I’m afraid, has turned from something that has to do with right and wrong into personal vendettas,” Shelton said.
Dornier said Shelton is wrong to keep pointing out that one of the plaintiffs lost the mayoral election against him because there are three plaintiffs. Dornier also said suggestions that Freneaux, Mannino and Stephens want to stop economic development in Central are false.
“There is no doubt that there will be a development here,” Dornier said. “The plaintiffs seek to have the development done and planned and authorized simply in accordance with the law.”
Shelton and Bailey said the demand for the housing and retail that the development will bring is high. The apartment-averse Central has gone decades without a luxury apartment option and now has pent-up demand, Bailey said.
The development also is an opportunity for Central to welcome new residents, Shelton said.
“Do I think those apartments or these houses are going to fill up with Central residents? No, ma’am,” Shelton said. “There will absolutely be some. But I would say the majority will be new residents to Central.”
The lawsuit heads to court at 9 a.m. Wednesday with state Judge Wilson Fields.