Robert Thompson has been building homes in the Breakaway Trails subdivision for more than 17 years. His own house, on Pawnee Trail, presses up against the Columbus Municipal Airport property, giving him a view of an empty field.
Just down the street, his grandson Jeff lives in the only two-story house on the block. Construction is wrapping up on another Thompson-built home on the same street.
But now he is worried that a student housing development, proposed by city officials, will ruin both the view and his plans for the subdivision.
Thompson and other members of the community persuaded the Board of Aviation Commissioners last week to throttle back on the proposal for up to a three-story student housing complex just south of Ray Boll Boulevard and Chapa Drive. The project would be built by private developers and is not affiliated with any of the colleges on city airport property.
About 25 people turned out for the first hearing March 12 on the change to the airport’s planned unit development. Many asked questions about the need for student housing at the commuter campus, the proposed location, the size of the complex and what would happen to the housing should it fizzle in attracting students.
Thompson said his concern is for property values and the ability to sell more lots in the subdivision.
About 190 families live in the subdivision, just north of Parkside Drive and east of Central Avenue. There are 230 lots planned in Thompson’s development. He estimated having $2 million worth of lots left to sell but said the addition of student rental housing nearby could drop to value of his remaining properties to $1.5 million or less.
“We have 190 homes in Breakaway Trails, and it would cause the value of their homes to decrease in a big way,” Thompson said.
He said he already has taken a hit on property values on the east side of the development, which sits across Middle Road from Candlelight Village Mobile Home Park. Thompson had to sell the lots at a lower cost and build less-expensive homes to generate real estate sales there, he said.
Other homes in the development are $300,000 to $400,000 in value.
Thompson said he spoke to a lawyer last week and hopes to generate a grass-roots movement among his neighbors and customers opposing the project. He believes his best bet is to tie up the project early in the approval process, such as at the airport board stage.
He also believes that, if more residents of Breakaway Trails had been aware of what was being planned, he could have packed the meeting room at the airport with opposition.
“Those engineers and other businesspeople that live there know that the value of their homes are going down,” Thompson said. “We are paying big taxes, and the values of our homes are decreasing. I am backed right up to it. I would want to move out, myself. I wouldn’t want dormitories behind my house.”
The board had hoped to approach the Columbus Plan Commission next month with a request to see if the city would even allow the possibility of housing at the airport. That change, which would add student housing to the list of approved land uses in one area of the airport, would have to be approved by the City Council.
City Council member Frank Miller said that he would look unfavorably on the change if he were on the Plan Commission because there isn’t enough detail in the type of housing being discussed. The Breakaway Trails neighborhood is in Miller’s council district, and he spoke up for the residents at the airport board meeting.
“I think they have concerns that are very valid,” Miller said.
Several other audience members at the meeting, including Lou Marr, who serves on the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, and Roger Lang, president of the Plan Commission, said they also were concerned about the lack of detail.
But the development is in the early planning stages, said Caleb Tennis, president of the airport board. Several private developers had approached the airport with offers to build student-related housing. As it stands now, however, there is nothing in the airport plan that addresses permanent housing.
Tennis said that he considered the current request a simple step, with more detailed consideration to come after the airport chose a potential developer. The developer would then have to submit plans for approval.
“We have not signed any leases. We have not made any agreements with anybody. This is an important piece of the process that obviously we have to get through before anything would be allowed,” Tennis said.
He also balked at requests for the airport board to conduct public discussions on the plan outside normal meetings. He said the planning department mails letters to neighbors and would post signs on the property explaining that a change was being considered before it would be heard by the Plan Commission.
Tennis said the members of the airport board are in an unusual situation. They would be the landlords for the student housing, although not the developers, and would have to make this first request.
“If there is a consensus among the people in Breakaway Trails against this, I would say that the Plan Commission and the City Council are the place to stop it,” he said. “I don’t know that we are going to come kicking and screaming that this has to go through, or that kind of thing, but we are the body responsible for making a judgment call.”
The Federal Aviation Administration will not allow permanent housing on airport property, but transitory housing such as a nursing home or student housing could be allowed, as long as it isn’t built under the aircraft approaches to the field, Tennis said.
The aviation board could not reach a consensus on the project, and the discussion will continue at the April 9 meeting.