By Jeff Keeling
A development company wanting to build a 216-unit apartment complex near downtown Johnson City may have cleared its last zoning hurdle with the city Tuesday.
The Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) approved Evolve Development’s request for a zoning variance to allow parking between buildings and State of Franklin Road. The vote was 3-1, with board members Robert Thomas, Jamie Povlich and Dwight Harrell in favor and Jenny Lockmiller opposed.
The project has been mired in controversy for months, with a large contingent of neighbors and business owners in the adjacent Tree Streets neighborhood opposed to the project. The property, 6.6 acres upon which sit the former General Mills buildings and the former Mize Farm and Garden store, also has ties to the Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which owns the mill portion (4.8 acres).
Attempts to prevent or stymie the project were highlighted by the fact that, for a few short minutes Tuesday, Evolve was in possession of not one, but two approvals from the BZA for the same request. The board approved the request April 1, but Tree Streets resident Amber Lee was represented in a “writ of certiorari” filed June 2 in Chancery Court petitioning the court to send that decision back to the BZA.
The writ, filed by Wison, Worley, Gamble and Stout, cited inappropriate notification procedures as well as inadequate “findings of fact” by the BZA. Rather than wait for a Chancery ruling, Evolve attorney Tom McKee refiled for a variance on his client’s behalf.
Tuesday, both McKee and Rebecca Ketchie of Wilson, Worley et al spoke to the issue. Also speaking in favor of approval were Steve Neilson of the city’s planning division and the Chamber Foundation’s real estate broker, Jerry Petzoldt.
The issue revolved primarily around flood plain and the fact that the property is surrounded on all four sides by streets. Proponents of the variance argued that those two facts together made placing buildings between the street and the parking area a bad idea, as several buildings would need to sit fully in the flood plain — something that is both against the city’s overall storm water remediation plan and is legal but not advisable.
For her part, Ketchie argued that Evolve could still legally build in the floodplain, and thus avoid the need for a variance. The company would simply need to spend the necessary capital to meet the more stringent requirements for that type of construction.
“There are ways to use the property, comply with the zoning ordinance and minimize your effect on the floodplain,” Ketchie said. She added that in her view, Evolve had created a “false dichotomy” between its plans for the property as presented and the current state of the property (an empty mill and a closed store).
“There is another way to use this property that’s valuable,” Ketchie said. “It may not be easy, it may not be terribly lucrative, it might be expensive to do a different plan that does comply with the zoning code.”
Neilson said that essentially forcing the buildings into the floodplain “is not in the city’s best interest.” He cited numerous projects completed along the State of Franklin corridor and around or within the Brush Creek floodplain in which developers had left their buildings out of the floodplain.
Even with the variance, Evolve will put a portion of two of its five apartment buildings inside the floodplain, along with its clubhouse. That prompted Lockmiller to ask what the point of allowing a variance was, considering that the request seemed to be built around the contention that putting parking in the allowed configuration (in the middle of the buildings away from the street) would require building in the floodplain.
“It seems to me that you’re choosing to build in the floodplain anyway,” Lockmiller said. “If it’s a hardship, we’re going to give them a way to avoid the hardship and they’re still going to jump right into the hardship.”
Other board members asked several additional questions, including a question from Povlich to Neilson as to whether the fact that the property is surrounded by streets on four sides — in the absence of the floodplain issue — still would justify a variance. Neilson said that it would, and shortly after, Povlich moved for approval.
The motion for approval incorporated a list of six “findings of fact” suggested by Neilson. Evolve has said it hopes to close on the property and begin demolition relatively soon.