Zoning variance for mill property apartment project challenged in court


By Jeff Keeling

A petition filed in Chancery Court today is the latest potential roadblock in an apartment developer’s quest to build 216 units on the former General Mills and Mize properties near East Tennessee State University. The suit seeks to nullify, at least temporarily, the Johnson City Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) April 1 decision to grant a parking variance to Evolve Development.

The suit, filed by a Kingsport law firm with Tree Streets resident Amber Lee as plaintiff, asks Chancellor John Rambo to return the request to the BZA for reconsideration. Lee, herself an attorney, works voluntarily on housing and community development issues for the Southside Neighborhood Organization, which has opposed Evolve’s apartment project.

A sign like the one shown here could return to the former General Mills property if a suit filed June 2 in Chancery Court is successful. Photo by Jeff Keeling

A sign like the one shown here could return to the former General Mills property if a suit filed June 2 in Chancery Court is successful. Photo by Jeff Keeling 

“We took up a kitty,” Lee said of the SNO’s decision to retain Wilson, Worley, Moore, Gamble and Stout to represent it. “A few people who could contribute did.”

The request for a “writ of certiorari” is based on two arguments, Lee said. One is that the BZA didn’t properly follow its public notice procedures prior to the April 1 meeting that saw it approve the variance request by a 3-1 vote. That variance allows the developer to place parking next to State of Franklin Road, while normal zoning regulations would require parking to be on the interior of the property with buildings between a road and the parking lot.

The second argument is that the decision the BZA made was “arbitrary and capricious” because, in the plaintiff’s opinion, the BZA did not properly follow Johnson City’s zoning ordinance or Tennessee law when it granted the variance.

The suit spells out several points to back up both arguments, Lee said. She said it will be up to Rambo whether to remand the request back to the BZA for reconsideration, and that he has no set time limit in which to make his decision.

“The chancellor would review the record,” Lee said. “That would include the evidence presented before the board, and he would determine if the appropriate procedures were followed, and if they had enough evidence to make a decision. He isn’t being asked to determine whether that decision was valid or not, but if they had followed the appropriate procedures and if they could make a decision based on the evidence they had and considered.”

Lee said that the BZA is required to make findings of fact to support its decisions and that in this case, members failed to make any findings of fact.

Evolve’s project has been the subject of much controversy since it was announced last fall. The mill property is owned by the Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which said when it purchased it in 2008 that it planned a mixed-use development to include a new Chamber headquarters.

Shortly after the City Commission passed, by a 3-2 vote, Evolve’s request to rezone the property from B-2 (Central Business District) to B-3 (Supporting Central Business), the $18 million project hit its first major snag. Commissioners learned April 28 that city staff had failed to advertise the public hearing that occurred on second reading of the rezoning request.

The commission is in the midst of a redo on that task, with the repeat of second reading set for later this month.


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