Johnson City Press Monday, October 20, 2014

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Rezoning debate carries into the night

February 20th, 2014 10:27 pm by Gary B. Gray

Rezoning debate carries into the night

(Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)

Extensive debate on the proposed rezoning of the former Mennel Milling Co. and current Mize Farm & Garden sites, kept the City Commission from arriving at a conclusion before the presses had to roll Thursday night.

More than 100 people -- most of them Tree Streets residents -- jammed into commission chambers, and roughly 30 to 40 got an opportunity to speak in favor and in opposition of a $18.5 million, 216-unit apartment complex.

Commissioners listened for hours, and it was not known at press time how long it took for the body to vote on a second reading to rezone the property from B-2 (central business) to B-3 (supporting central business)

Tom KcKee, legal counsel for Evolve, highlighted the positive points of the development and reminded commissioners several times that their task was only to make a decision on the rezoning -- nothing else. He called the mill a “white elephant,” and said the developer was “simply asking that the property be rezoned the same as nearby land.”

Jerry Petzoldt, a broker for TCI Group, said the Johnson City/Washington County Area Chamber of Commerce first enlisted his help in 2011 to try and facilitate the sale of the property. He said one of the first offers was for a seven-story structure.

“The very first questioned I asked the city was, ‘Can we have access to State of Franklin.’ I was told no,” he said.

Petzoldt said he spoke with a dozen developers and businesses, from an investor who wanted to build a single-story complex, to a truck rental company that was looking to relocate. In the end, he received no written offers from any business or developer in the Tri-Cities area.

The mill sits on land owned by the chamber, and the property has been shopped around for years.

However, it was the organization’s former board chairman and owner of the Firehouse Restaurant, Tom Seaton, who may have gained the commissioners’ attention early on in the conversation.

Seaton, who spoke on behalf of perhaps a dozen business owners along Walnut Street and near the planned development, said the group wanted to see a commercial component included in the project, but that, apparently was not going to happen.

“The first plan discussed was a higher-end complex designed to attract higher-end tenants,” he told commissioners. “It’s a concern for us that the developer changed plans.”

Seaton was referring to Evolve’s decision to rent by the room.

“It would have been better to have had that information up front,” he said. “In our opinion, a student-based apartment complex does not suit surrounding businesses and developments. This is a key anchor of an area between ETSU and downtown.”

Southside Neighborhood Association President, Jodi Jones, spoke for the neighborhood, saying the property borders one of the largest historic districts in the state.

“This is our place, and we are experts about what goes on here,” she said.

In other business, commissioners deferred action for two weeks on a remedy for the starling problem in the Gump Addition.

Commissioners considered three options to help rid the Gump Addition of the troublesome starlings. The bird’s droppings have prompted health concerns, and Tennessee Wildlife Services District Supervisor, Keith Blanton, met with residents and members of the Johnson City Police Department a few weeks ago to discuss the problem.

Commissioner Jenny Brock expressed concerns about liability and requested the neighborhood committee meet again. The matter will be taken up at the City Commission’s March 6 meeting. 

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