Johnson City Development Planner Steve Neilson speaks out in favor of a zoning variance to allow Evolve Development to construct a parking lot in a floodplain along West State of Franklin Road. (Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
After being excepted from Johnson City’s zoning laws, a North Carolina developer is one step away from receiving final approval to convert a defunct mill property into apartment housing.
Despite opposition from a local neighborhood committee, on Tuesday evening, by a vote of 3-1, the Johnson City Board of Zoning Appeals approved a variance in the city’s parking code in favor of Evolve Development’s proposal to build a parking lot off West State of Franklin Road to serve a proposed 216-unit apartment complex.
The proposal hinges, however, on final approval from the Johnson City Commission to rezone the property-in-question — which houses the defunct Model Mill and Mize Farm and Garden Supply buildings — from a B-2 (central business district) to a B-3 (supporting central business district) designation. A decision on the proposed rezoning is expected to be reached when the City Commission reconvenes on Thursday.
On Tuesday, however, board members were petitioned by representatives for Evolve and one member of the city’s Planning Division for the variance to parking regulation 11.2.2, which states, “excluding single-family and two-family residential uses, parking for residential uses shall not be located between the right-of-way line and the front building line. On corner lots, parking shall not be located between the building and any right-of-way line, excluding alleys.”
According to Johnson City Development Planner Steve Neilson, the regulation presented a problem for Evolve in that, if the developer were to abide by it, the complex would have to be built adjacent to West State of Franklin, which would put it in the middle of a 100-year floodplain.
“This area is in the floodplain, and has a history of flooding,” Neilson said, during the meeting. “In order to meet the parking requirements, they would have to put the parking along the front.”
Neilson added that Evolve offered to distance its parking lot from the sidewalk along State of Franklin by constructing a landscaped berm between them.
“In order to mitigate the impact of the parking along State of Franklin Road, the petitioner is proposing an approximately 15-foot-wide berm that’s 3-feet high that will be landscaped,” Neilson said. “It will soften the impact of the proposed development.”
For members of the Southside Neighborhood Organization, which is comprised of residents from the nearby Tree Streets neighborhood, it may take more than landscaping to soften the development’s impact. Amber Floyd Lee, an SNO member and attorney who spoke against the variance during Tuesday’s meeting, said that the petition submitted by Evolve did not conform to standards set by the Tennessee Code Annotated.
According to TCA 13-7-207, a variance in zoning law can be issued if “exceptional topographic conditions or other extraordinary and exceptional situation or condition of such piece of property” would be detrimental to a property owner. While erecting a building in a floodplain could prove detrimental to Evolve, Lee said there were no grounds for a variance because the floodplain area is not unique to the Model Mill and Mize properties.
“A valid variance is unique to the subject property,” Lee said. “It has to be a peculiar characteristic of that land. It would not be fair to grant this property a variance and not the one next door, because you’re basically giving one owner a use of land and not another person.
“You’re giving them a remedy for a problem and then telling somebody else to suck it up.”
The solution, according to Lee, would be to rezone the flood plain as a flood area, or to grant variances to every business along the floodplain, which stretches from the downtown area down West State of Franklin. The board did not, however, address that concern during the meeting.
A motion was made by board member Robert Thomas to approve the variance on the condition that the City Commission rezoned the property to a B-3 designation, that Evolve would construct the berm between the parking lot and State of Franklin, and that the Model Mill and Mize properties would be legally joined. The motion passed with three “aye” votes, with Jenny Lockmiller dissenting.