Hundreds of upset residents jammed the gym at the East Ridge Community Center wanting answers from the mayor and housing authority board members about the possibility of having their homes taken by the government. Even though the event was planned weeks in advance, there was no public address system and officials’ answers had to be shouted to the crowd, setting the tone of this public gathering.
East Ridge Housing and Redevelopment Authority Vice Chairman Eddie Phillips began by saying that he had lived in the city for 67 years and this was the biggest crowd he had ever seen at a public meeting. The crowd almost immediately began complaining that they couldn’t hear what was being said.
Mayor Brent Lambert projected his voice as best he could and told those gathered that anytime there is a property question it raises concerns among the citizens and that Darwin Branam, the Chairman of the ERHRA, would explain there was never any intention of the board taking private residential property.
“Obviously, this has set off a bit of a firestorm in East Ridge,” Lambert said.
On April 11, the ERHRA sent out 5,300 letters informing people that their home or business was included in an area subject to redevelopment. The letter announced the May 3 meeting in which any questions would be answered.
In a matter of days, a group of citizens were galvanized into action and formed a group called East Ridge Citizens United for Property Rights. Earlier in the week, the organization met with attorneys from the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Virginia based non-profit law firm that specializes in cases involving government overreach.
Branam attempted to read a statement prior to citizens going to tables set up where they could view the boundary map and ERHRA plan and ask questions of board members, city staff and housing authority attorney Mark Litchford. In the statement Branam said that there was never any intention of taking residential property. By consensus of the East Ridge City Council, the ERHRA would go back to work to redraw the boundary in which the board could operate, excluding each and every residential property.
“We will be removing all residential areas from the plan,” Branam told those assembled.
He said the overarching concept of the ERHRA was to promote economic development opportunities in the city’s commercial district.
That statement, a copy of which was not immediately made available to the press, did not satisfy many in the crowd.
“We want this housing authority dissolved … period,” said David Bostain, whose wife, Lesley, spearheaded the formation of the anti-housing authority group.
Bostain and his group were not alone. Numerous people in the crown held aloft signs denouncing government overreach and calling for the dissolution of the housing authority.
“I want it gone,” said Charles Howell, who has lived inside the ERHRA boundary area on Pleasant Street for 18 years. “I think these people are talking out of both sides of their mouth.”
Howell said it wasn’t good enough for the ERHRA to give assurances that residential property was out. He said that another City Council and Mayor could in the future turn around and allow the ERHRA to reinstate residential areas within the map.
Frances Pope, a citizen activist who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2014, circulated a petition to dissolve the ERHRA during the meeting. On Friday morning she said more than 80 residents of East Ridge had signed the petition.
Mayor Lambert said that he wanted to move forward with the revitalization of the city’s commercial district by using the ERHRA. He said he would not be in favor of dissolving the board.
For years, Lambert said, there has been a hue and cry from the community to do something about the decline of the commercial district on Ringgold Road. The ERHRA gives the city a tool in which to move forward with redevelopment of the business district.
City Manager Scott Miller said that the council has directed the ERHRA authority to remove residential areas from the boundary map. Once the map is redrawn the City Council would have to vote to accept the map and the redevelopment plan. If that is done, a public meeting would be held for citizens to provide additional input.
No timetable has been established for the City Council to adopt a new boundary map or plan, he said.