Housing plan faces hostile crowd

Friday, June 6, 2008

It took the threat of a tornado to prevent the majority of the standing-room-only crowd at the Nanjemoy Community Center on Wednesday night from leaving in disgust.

Only 75 minutes into what was supposed to be a several-hour question-and-answer session on a proposed affordable housing project in Nanjemoy, most attendees realized that no one from Charles County government was attending the meeting and decided to walk out.

The only thing that stopped them was an announcement by the community center staff that a tornado had been spotted in the western part of the county. So, most of the audience came back into the center and huddled in the hallways, waiting for the storm to pass.

The meeting’s thunderous closure capped what had been a stormy evening in other ways.

Nanjemoy developer Cornell Posey, who owns land in the area that he wants to sell to the county to build subsidized housing, scheduled the meeting as a follow-up to the emotional public hearing held by the county commissioners on the subject May 21. Posey began the meeting with a fiery appeal to the largely hostile audience urging them to support the affordable apartment complex for the area’s poorest residents

Posey alternated between challenging and pleading with the crowd to support the project, which has now fallen under the direction of the county and the Greater Waldorf Jaycees Foundation.

‘‘Jesus says to serve the poor,” Posey said, pointing out that it is the community’s duty as Christians to aid their neighbors. ‘‘This project is 100 percent nonprofit. We’re trying to clean up our community.”

Posey addressed rumors that the project would bring outsiders into the area and set off rampant development, saying, ‘‘This project ain’t based on bringing people down from [Washington], D.C., [Prince George’s County], Waldorf or La Plata. ... We ain’t trying to make Nanjemoy [into] La Plata.”

Posey also attempted to defuse allegations of racial discrimination raised by Nanjemoy resident Pavielle Smith the May 21 hearing.

‘‘I don’t want to make this a race thing,” Posey said. Referring to Smith’s comments, he said, ‘‘She’s young. That’s how she felt.”

As the intensity of Posey’s speech wound down, the intensity of the crowd’s heckling increased. One woman questioned Posey’s motivation for wanting the county and the Jaycees to build subsidized apartments, asking, ‘‘Are you going to donate the land?”

Posey replied that the county has not yet determined what it will pay for his land. According to county officials this week, the county has not even determined if it will buy Posey’s land at all and is considering all options.

Posey then turned over the meeting to Mike Sullivan, a Newburg resident and a developer by trade.Sullivan has been publicly urging the commissioners to change county rules to allow construction of community septic systems, a feature that would be required for any affordable housing project in Nanjemoy to proceed.

However, Sullivan told the crowd that his company has no development interest in Charles County, and said he did not know ‘‘any more than you do about this project.”

Sullivan attempted to explain to the crowd the history of how Nanjemoy’s poorest residents came to live in dilapidated trailers with no plumbing and illegal electrical connections, explaining the zoning changes and government inaction that contributed to the current situation. He also attempted to show how land preservation and the lack of proper percolation would prevent Nanjemoy from experiencing any kind of rapid development.

However, the audience hammered Sullivan with political questions, which he tried to explain he was unqualified to answer. Finally, a woman stood up in the audience and asked, ‘‘Are there any elected officials in here?”

‘‘No, this is Nanjemoy, you won’t find any!” came a reply from across the room.

Another woman, identifying herself as ‘‘Terry,” stood up and said, ‘‘Why are we here when there is no one to stand up for the county? ... In a meeting like this, someone from the county should be here.”

‘‘It’s a waste of time, then,” another audience member murmured, and several audience members in the rear of the room stood up and began what would be an abortive exit.

Charles County Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D) said this week that she would hold another county hearing in Nanjemoy before the end of the month to discuss the project. But Posey said he feels Wednesday’s meeting accomplished more than it would have with government endorsement.

‘‘Actually, the meeting went better than it did with the county commissioners,” Posey said Thursday.

Posey dismissed the meeting’s heckling and abrupt ending as the reaction of a a determined core of residents who are opposed to anything involving the current board of commissioners.

‘‘You got 20 people who are rotten apples,” Posey said. ‘‘They just hate the county commissioners. ... Some people will never change. They came in wanting to fight.”

Posey said that he talked to several residents after the meeting who encouraged him to keep fighting for the project, even appealing to the federal Justice Department if necessary. Posey called for the commissioners to hold one more meeting on the project and then make a decision.

‘‘The longer they drag this out, the more they are going to divide the community,” Posey said.