To say Hickory Ridge residents had a vested interest in the Ardmore City Commission meeting Monday night might be construed as an understatement.
Residents turned out in force in support of a petition opposing the placement of a Department of Human Services building on Travertine Drive. More than 100 people signed the petition, which was handed over to commissioners prior to the meeting. The petition and accompanying protests were in response to the proposed DHS building, which was the subject matter of an application for a minor subdivision plat. The building will be constructed on land zoned light industrial. The DHS building will serve both Carter and Love counties.
"When a private land owner owns the land and it's zoned properly, it is almost automatic," said Ardmore city manager J.D. Spohn. Spohn said he understood how people feel, but the proposed building meets all the legal requirements.
Bywater LLC, owned by Joel Wisian, owns the land. Wisian also built a significant number of homes in Hickory Ridge, and a large amount of frustration centered on what residents felt was misinformation.
"It kind of felt like a waste of time," Nick Walls said. "They called us a rural housing development, and there are over 100 homes. We will keep trying, because we don't want it there. We really didn't have much notice and we thought it would be houses over there."
Walls said he bought his house from Wisian in May, and he had been told by Wisian only houses would be built on the land.
The land was zoned light industrial in 2003, and when Hickory Ridge was zoned RS-6 in 2006, the adjacent land remained light industrial. Nick Diaz, director of development services for the city, said a number of propositions that include government buildings, retail stores, service-oriented repair shops and self-storage buildings would have passed code on the land. The DHS building will house 140 employees as well as people seeking services, which have residents concerned about traffic.
"I know we need betterment of the community, and it just seems this is out of the way," Heath Green said. "There are 140 cars, and it's hard enough to get on highway 70."
"When you get off Kings Road, you can almost get in a wreck," Lesli Green added.
Both were also concerned about the loss of the DHS presence in the downtown area, as 130 customers for restaurants and retail shops would work somewhere else.
After the meeting, Wisian made himself available to address the concerns of Hickory Ridge residents. Prior to the meeting, Wisian emphasized his intent to be a good neighbor and address any issues residents might have. He also said he had not told residents the land would be used for housing.
"We always said it would be developed in the future, and we had no plans for it," Wisian said. "And until June, we didn't have any plans for it. That is what is zoned, and that is what it will be used for. There are a number of uses that could be much worse. From our standpoint as developers, we want to assign areas and have compatible uses."
Wisian said it is not an anomaly, and cited examples such as the Quentin-Little Building and Chickasaw Health Department as buildings placed next to residences.
"What we will be developing is a professional office building," he said. "It is not an emergency shelter, and it will be a nice buffer from the industrial park."
Wisian said he will be available to hear residents concerns as the owner of the land. He said he was unaware of the issues until Friday when a family member notified him. Leading into Monday's meeting, Wisian had given out his phone number to answer questions and he had received two phone calls.
Rep. Pat Ownbey (R-Ardmore), chairman of the Human Services Committee, received a number of phone calls regarding the matter, as did Sen. Frank Simpson (R-Ardmore). Both feel communication was lacking, but the construction of the DHS building did meet guidelines and there is nothing that can be done at the state level.
"The first time I knew about this issue was Saturday," Ownbey said. "I'm disappointed there wasn't more communication among the builder and homeowners to thoroughly share information about this project.
"Monday morning, I was in Oklahoma City at DHS offices to discuss this issue with those people who were involved in the search for new DHS headquarters. Until this morning, they were unaware of any public concerns that came with their proposed new office for Carter and Love counties. During my conversation this morning, DHS assured me that they have not had any problematic issues with other offices around the state which are located next to residential areas."
Simpson said he had received a notice from DHS as to when there would be an advertisement, but did not receive any other communication on the matter.
"I talked to DHS today, and there should be more communication," Simpson said Monday. "We can talk to them and let them fix the issue, that way the legislature knows what is going on. The ideal thing would be for DHS to have had a town hall meeting."
Another corner on Travertine Drive was also considered for placement of the DHS office. Wisian said he had an option on the lease last year. The option expired and a request on his part and another interested party for an option was considered by the Ardmore Development Authority and rejected.
ADA interim president and CEO Brian Carter said the placement of a government building on ADA property did not fit the mission of the authority, which is to recruit industries that provide core jobs.
Brad Wilson, acting president of the Hickory Ridge Homeowners Association, said everyone had concerns about increased traffic, and they were aware the item was on the consent agenda.
"Thankfully, Mr. Wisian will hear our concerns," Wilson said. "So long as everything has been done pursuant to code and good stewardship, everything will work out well."
Wisian said the issue of traffic and the speed of traffic could be fixed, but it did not help there had not been a line of communication to address residents' concerns after he offered his phone number on Saturday.
"I know all those folks, and I have been in their homes," Wisian said. "I respect them, and this is part of growth in Ardmore."