McKee still confident mill property development will proceed as planned
By Jeff Keeling
As he said he would, the attorney for a North Carolina developer has reapplied for a previously approved zoning variance for the former General Mills property near downtown Johnson City, rather than wait on a ruling from a Chancery Court suit disputing the variance and filed June 2 that disputes that variance.
“We’re planning to go ahead and schedule another hearing (with the Board of Zoning Appeals) on July 1,” attorney Tom McKee said last Friday. He said he didn’t believe the delay would impact Evolve Development’s timeline toward closing on the property and beginning construction of an $18 million, 216-unit apartment complex. McKee also said he doesn’t believe a repeat of the BZA process will change the outcome.
Evolve plans to develop a five-building complex on 7 acres between downtown and East Tennessee State University — including the property where the former General Mills facility stands. The project has been the subject of controversy for months, with many nearby residents opposed to the variance and a separatel rezoning that Evolve requested.
Johnson City resident Amber Lee filed a petition in Chancery Court June 2 asking that a parking variance granted April 1 by the Board of Zoning Appeals be sent back to the BZA. The suit claims that the City of Johnson City failed to follow its ordinances regarding public notice and signage displayed on the property.
The suit also claims BZA members didn’t provide adequate “findings of fact” in their decision to grant the variance and that, in fact, the approval was improper.
McKee on Friday conceded the point on the notice and signage. He said he had already spoken to city staff and requested a sign be produced that meets the law. Repeating the BZA process voluntarily, he said, should negate the need for a Chancery Court review and save his client time and money.
McKee said he believed the BZA would again approve the variance, which allows parking next to State of Franklin Road. Standard zoning requires buildings between the roadway and residential parking.
“I know the right thing to do, and I suspect (Chancellor John Rambo) would certainly rule in her (Lee’s) favor on this one thing,” McKee said of the signage and notice.
Of the city’s apparent failure to dot all its “i’s” and cross its “t’s,” McKee said “sometimes you lose track of technicalities.”
He said he expected BZA members to record their findings of facts in accordance with legal requirements, as well.
The BZA’s next scheduled meeting is July 1. Meanwhile, due to a separate oversight by city staff, a previously approved rezoning from B-2 (Central Business District) to B-3 (Supporting Central Business) has been going back through the process of three readings, with the third reading set for June 19. Evolve requested the rezoning so that it could include residential units on the ground floor of its buildings, as B-2 requires commercial on the ground floor.
The Johnson City Chamber of Commerce Foundation owns the mill property and has since 2008, when it announced plans to pursue a mixed use development plan that would include a new Chamber headquarters. Recently, some of those opposing the plan have called for the Chamber Foundation to sever ties with Evolve and pursue a development project that would include historic renovation of the century-old mill.
Chamber representatives have said that more than one prospective developer approached them informally about such a scenario, but that none of those ideas turned out to be financially viable.