Phase Two, Part Two

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Phase Two, Part Two

Now that it seems developer Frank Mullins has lined up a good slate of potential commercial tenants for Phase Two of the Mullins Crossing shopping center on Washington Road in Columbia County, the Mullins family is seeking to rezone it back to the commercial zoning it held before 2010.

The land has been conveniently zoned at the lower taxed R-2 zoning since December 2010, when commissioners raised some eyebrows by allowing the 22-acre parcel to go back to its original residential zoning after questions surfaced over whether all the proper signatures had been obtained for the commercial zoning it got back in 2006, just after the opening of the Target-anchored Mullins Crossing.

Phase Two of Mullins Crossing has always carried a whiff of controversy, and those eyebrows rose because critics contended the questions were fabricated as a way for the family to hold onto the property through the economic downturn without having to pay the higher commercial tax.

The land was zoned commercial in 2006, but when the planned Hobby Lobby anchor tenant decided to locate where it is now in Richmond County, the development stalled, then faltered altogether during the recession that followed.

In June 2010, members of the Mullins family, who own the land, came before the planning commission seeking to rezone the land back to residential. At the time, Planning Manager Nayna Mistry said they were looking for the rezoning in order to get a reduction in property taxes.

When staff recommended disapproval of the request because it would be inconsistent with the surrounding properties and also conflict with the county’s growth management plan, the story quickly changed. Instead of seeking a reduction in property taxes, attorney John Donsbach said the rezoning request was being made to resolve a title problem with the property.

The question centered on whether Robert F. Mullins, medical director of the Joseph M. Still Burn Center, knew about the 2006 rezoning. If he was not aware of the rezoning, county attorney Doug Batchelor said the land could be returned to its original, and financially less burdensome, residential zoning.

Batchelor sent Robert Mullins a letter asking whether he had knowledge of the rezoning. When he didn’t respond within the allotted time, the county initiated the rezoning to residential in an effort to correct the error.

At the time, cynics felt the move failed to pass the smell test: first the family comes to the county looking to save money on property taxes, receives push back from county staff and then comes back with an allegation that not everyone who needed to be aware of the commercial zoning was aware of it, and when that key person — a prominent and easily reached medical professional — doesn’t respond, the whole thing is allowed to go back to its originally requested residential zoning, saving the family a lot of money.

Convenient, huh?

In 2010, the land was worth almost $4 million as a commercial property, requiring $42,000 in property taxes. Before 2006 it was worth about $700,000 as residential property, costing $6,200 in property taxes.

Now, developer Frank Mullins is assuring everyone that all the proper signatures are there. Both Robert Mullins and Frank Mullins signed the zoning application on June 5, 2014.

Isn’t it just great how for some people, things always seem to work out for the best?