By Jeff Keeling
The City of Johnson City failed to provide a required public notice of the Feb. 20 public hearing on a controversial rezoning along West Walnut Street, nullifying the action that had paved the way for a new apartment complex commissioners learned Monday.
Commissioners heard of the oversight, which will delay the rezoning requested by Evolve Development, at an agenda review meeting. Evolve, a North Carolina company, hopes to buy the former General Mills and Mize properties between downtown and East Tennessee State University and build a 216-unit, $18 million apartment complex there.
The Johnson City Regional Planning Commission’s approval of rezoning from B-2 (Central Business District) to B-3 stands, as does the Board of Zoning Appeals’ granting of a parking variance to Evolve. The City Commission, however, must repeat three readings, including one public hearing with a 15-day public notice, for an ordinance that passed in a split 3-2 vote on all three previous readings.
Commissioners tentatively decided Monday to hold a new first reading Thursday, and second and third readings June 5 and June 19. Some commissioners will be out of town for the other May meetings, and all agreed it would be best to have a full commission present for the revotes.
The now-voided Feb. 20 public hearing drew many neighboring residents and business owners, who voiced near unanimous opposition to the project, citing the likelihood that it would essentially become off-campus student housing and not benefit downtown redevelopment, among multiple other concerns. After being delayed several times, the rezoning passed on what was assumed to be third and final reading April 3.
“That rezoning is null and void if challenged,” City Manager Pete Peterson told commissioners Monday. “You have to go through all three readings of the ordinance in order to pass the rezoning properly.”
After an initial moment during which they appeared rather stunned, commissioners began asking Peterson about both the process and about whether Evolve Development representative Scott Austin’s project would be hampered by the delay. The 5-acre General Mills property has been owned by the Chamber of Commerce Foundation since 2008, at which time the Chamber expressed the intent to redevelop the property into a mixed use complex that would include a relocated Chamber headquarters.
The property sat after the economy soured, and despite several parties showing interest, no project was announced until Evolve came along, and its plan was revealed last fall. The rezoning request was related to Evolve’s desire to put apartments on all floors, as B-2 zoning does not allow residential on the first floor. The run-up to Monday had already been a months long process, and commissioners asked whether yet another delay would interfere with Evolve’s timeline.
Peterson told commissioners he had spoken with Chamber CEO Gary Mabrey Monday.
“They’re in the process now of doing an extension to the sales contract to allow the developer to finish his due diligence,” Peterson said.
Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin, who joined commissioners Jeff Banyas and Jenny Brock in supporting the rezoning, with Vice Mayor Clayton Stout and Commissioner David Tomita opposed, requested Mabrey be asked to check with Scott Austin to make sure delaying votes until all commissioners could be present didn’t interfere with his plans.
The May 1, June 5 and June 19 dates “give every commissioner the opportunity to be there to weigh in,” Van Brocklin said.