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Johnson City commissioners defer vote on national recognition for Hillrise Park

David Floyd • Sep 5, 2019 at 11:11 PM

Pointing to concerns from residents, Johnson City Commissioners have decided they need more information before they can endorse seeking recognition for a historic neighborhood.

During a regular meeting on Thursday, commissioners decided to delay their vote on the city’s nomination of the Hillrise Park subdivision to the National Register of Historic Places, an official list of historically significant buildings, districts and sites that are considered worthy of preservation.

If approved, the application would have moved on to the State Review Board.

The item was initially included on the City Commission’s consent agenda, but was pulled for further conversation by commissioners. Commissioner Todd Fowler lives in the neighborhood and said there has been resistance from some people living there.

“I’ve heard some comments, too,” said Mayor Jenny Brock, referencing concerns she’d heard that the designation would be a form of historic zoning, leading to limits on ability of property owners to make changes to their homes.

Development Services Director Preston Mitchell said this designation is not historic zoning.

“This is honorary designation, and that is it,” he said. “Plain and simple.”

Mitchell said placement on the national register also allows property owners to apply for tax credits that don’t exist for property owners outside of a national register district.

“If you are granted those tax credits, then that’s a huge benefit at the federal level on your income tax,” he said.

Mitchell noted that some people have asked whether this designation could act as a stepping stone to historic zoning.

“The answer is yes and no,” he said. “Oftentimes, national register designations do lead to historic zoning, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. It is ultimately the decision of you all, of the city commission, to decide from a policy level whether or not you, in the future, would ever want to apply historic zoning to this neighborhood.”

He believes the likelihood of a request for a historic zoning district in the Hillrise Park neighborhood is low.

“I think that’s the fear,” Fowler said. “That the people that are living there, that they won’t be able to add onto their house and the ways they do some of those things in the future because this passes and then it would just go right down the road to being an historic zone.”

The neighborhood, also called the Gump Addition in recognition of the original landowner and developer, Harry Gump, was initially platted in 1927, according to a city staff report. It’s the first landscaped residential subdivision in the Tri-Cities area.

According to city staff, construction in the subdivision slowed during the Great Depression and World War II.

“With the rest of the neighborhood being constructed after the war, the neighborhood provides an excellent cross section of architectural styles,” the staff report says.

Out of 174 properties and structures included in the nomination, the application identifies 147, or 85%, that contribute to the historical character of the neighborhood.

The city hired Thomason & Associates, a preservation firm, to conduct a survey of the houses in the neighborhood. Phil Thomason, the principal at the firm, told the Press in June that the neighborhood contains “a really good homogeneous collection of architectural styles,” including craftsman-style houses, Tudor revival houses, bungalows and ranch-style houses.

Mitchell said the nomination process began before he and senior planner Matthew Manley arrived at the city.

“My understanding is that previous staff, in concert with the historic commission, initiated this process,” he said.

The city held two public meetings about the designation in 2019. Although people inside and outside the subdivision had concerns about the possibility of this leading to historic zoning, Mitchell said that, generally speaking, the neighborhood is in favor of this designation.

“I don’t see a compelling reason why we have to vote on it tonight, and I still have a lot of unanswered questions,” Brock said.

Commissioners indicated that they would move the item to their second meeting in September and discuss the item in a workshop on the Monday before that meeting.

“This is a very thick packet of information,” Brock said. “If we could address it at that level, I would feel much more comfortable.”

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