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Tennessee board endorses 'determination of eligibility' for Hillrise Park

David Floyd • Sep 18, 2019 at 7:30 PM

Even though neighborhood opposition means it won’t receive a place on the National Register of Historic Places, a board in Nashville has decided a historic neighborhood in Johnson City does meet the criteria for that recognition.

The State Review Board in Nashville on Wednesday endorsed a “determination of eligibility” for the Hillrise Park neighborhood in Johnson City. The board’s recommendation will now go to the National Parks Service for a final decision.

“There’s been a lot of interest and activity regarding this district,” Rebecca Schmitt, a historic preservation specialist with the Tennessee Historical Commission, told the board on Wednesday.

The neighborhood was originally being considered for placement on the National Register of Historic Places, an official list of historic resources deemed worthy of preservation, but was downgraded to a determination of eligibility earlier this month after a majority of residents in the proposed register district, 142 out of 238, sent notarized letters to the state objecting to the nomination.

A determination of eligibility means the district meets the criteria for placement on the National Register of Historic Places, but it won’t be listed because of owner objections.

Staff with the Tennessee Historical Commission have said this is only the second time in 20 years that a proposed National Register district won’t be considered because of owner opposition.

Schmitt told the board that the listing is an honorary designation that does not place restrictions or requirements on private property owners, a concern expressed by residents in the neighborhood.

She said placement on the national register does make property owners eligible to receive tax credits and grants under certain circumstances. Those tax credits, which apply only to income producing properties, don’t exist under a determination of eligibility.

Phil Thomason is the principal at Thomason & Associates, a preservation firm out of Nashville that Johnson City hired to put together the nomination. He said his team heard positive feedback from residents about the designation when they were gathering information, which was then undercut by misinformation about the impact of the designation.

“I’m just really sorry that we find ourselves in this situation that started out with local support,” he told members of the board. “We had information in the newspaper early on about the process and that this was just going to be a National Register nomination, but we had some folks in the neighborhood that just got it into their heads that this was going to be some sort of restriction to their properties.”

“This is a major effort to defeat something that’s not going to have a material change to their lives or to their property,” Thomason continued.

Jim Shupe, who lives in Hillrise Park and signed his name to a flier that was distributed to people in the neighborhood that called the idea of a district a “nightmare,” said homeowners were “bypassed” during the process to put the neighborhood on the National Register, and believes the designation would have set the stage for a historic zoning overlay, which would limit what people could do with their properties.

Staff from Johnson City and the Tennessee Historical Association have said the National Register designation would not have placed restrictions on the rights of property owners. Schmitt told the Press last week that there has been precedent for neighborhoods that receive National Register designation to then receive historic zoning, but the designation does not always go to that point and noted that the decision is fundamentally up to locals.

In response to claims from residents that it contained inaccurate information about homes in the neighborhood, Johnson City is now in the middle of verifying information in the application. They are asking residents of the neighborhood to contact the city if they find any wrong information in the document.

Schmitt said the Tennessee Historical Commission has not received any official information about inaccuracies.

Inaccuracies in minute details regarding materials used on homes or prior occupants of houses, which were referenced by residents during a Johnson City Commission agenda review meeting on Monday, would not affect the eligibility of the neighborhood, she said.

“We are happy to correct those if people are able to submit that information to us,” Schmitt said.

The city has set a deadline of Sept. 25 for residents to submit comments. Johnson City hopes to get any additional info sent to the state before the application moves on the National Parks Service.

Hillrise Park, also known as the Gump Addition in recognition of the original landowner and developer, Harry Gump, was initially platted in 1927. It’s the first landscaped residential subdivision in the Tri-Cities area, and represents a cross-section of architectural styles dating back to the 1920s. The neighborhood was originally designed by E.S. Draper, a prominent landscape architect from Charlotte.

“This is clearly ... a very eligible district,” Thomason said. “The landscaping is wonderful. There’s not anything like this in Johnson City, and the architectural character is very intact.”

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