Showdown over the Mill: Johnson City Commission set to decide on development tonight

Gary B. Gray • Apr 3, 2014 at 12:30 PM

Three favorable votes.

Clear that last hurdle at tonight’s City Commission meeting and Evolve Development will get its rezoning request, jump on a purchase agreement with the Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce and begin construction of $18.5 million, 216-unit apartment complex off West State of Franklin Road.

The plan to develop about 6 acres where the defunct Model Mill and the vacated Mize Farm & Garden Supply stand was first proposed publicly in October. Since that time, commissioners approved Evolve’s request to rezone the mill property from B-2 (central business district) to B-3 (supporting central business district) in a 3-2 squeaker.

One change of heart could stop that request.

Before the Feb. 20 vote on second reading, Tom KcKee, legal counsel for Evolve, highlighted the development’s positive points and reminded commissioners several times their task was only to make a decision on the rezoning. He did, however, confirm developers had not been toppling over each other to get their hands on the land when he referred to the mill as a “white elephant.”

Since that time, he apparently has been working to speed up the process.

On March 25, McKee, also an attorney for the Johnson City Power Board, sent Development Services Director Angie Carrier a proposed draft of an amended development agreement. But it is not an agreement between Greensboro, N.C.-based Evolve and Johnson City. Evolve listed its address as Asheville, N.C., in its Dec. 13 request for a variance. Its website says the company is based in Greensboro, N.C.

The heading reads: “Amended Development Agreement with Mill City View, LLC.” The company, which also has a Greensboro address, is clearly identified as the developer.

“Evolve is the developer, but you’ve got investors and they’ll set up an LLC,” McKee said Wednesday. “This may be what all that’s about. It may go to Evolve who will develop it, and then be owned by the investors.”

On March 26, McKee sent a letter to city commissioners with a copy of the agreement attached. He says he’d been “advised” by Johnson City Development Coordinator Steve Neilson “that he has submitted his staff report to the Board of Zoning Appeals and it supports our request. I telephoned Chairman Mike Marchioni on Monday to request clarification from him on how he intended to handle the meeting on the 1st. He advised me that he was going to limit comments to matters relevant to our request ...

“One thing that Dr. Marchioni did mention to me that caused me concern was that he felt that the City Commission should have completed action on our rezoning request before our variance request was considered by the BZA.”

McKee then asks commissioners to confer individually with BZA members “to provide them further clarification concerning that position.”

“Obviously, my client is anxious to complete the rezoning variance process next week,” he concludes.

It was spelled out at the City Commission’s February meeting that it would vote on the rezoning prior to the variance matter being reviewed by the BZA. The reverse has happened.

The Feb. 20 vote came after a nearly four-hour public meeting at which members of the Southside Neighborhood Organization, a coalition of area business owners and others expressed their distaste with the plan. Opponents have said tenants primarily would be college students, which could increase traffic and bring noise and crime into their lives.

Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin, and Commissioners Jeff Banyas and Jenny Brock voted for the rezoning; Vice Mayor Clayton Stout and Commissioner David Tomita voted against it.

The new zoning designation allows the complex to have residential units on the first floor of the buildings, but it also forced the developer to abide by a city parking regulation forbidding parking lots built between the buildings and nearby roads.

However, the BZA on Tuesday voted 3-1 to grant Evolve a variance to the city’s parking code, allowing part of its parking lot to be built between West State of Franklin Road and the complex’s buildings.

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, according to Neilson. He added that Evolve offered to distance its parking lot from the sidewalk along West State of Franklin by constructing a landscaped berm between them.

A rendering from Monrach Ventures shows vehicles traveling on a road labeled University Parkway, not State of Franklin. They are separated from the complex parking lot by a landscaped berm.

“It will soften the impact of the proposed development,” Neilson said.

Tom Seaton, owner of The Firehouse restaurant on West Walnut Street, said Wednesday he had a list of 18 long-standing business and property owners opposing the complex.

“They are mainly business and property owners along Walnut Street — some have been here as long as 120 years,” he said. “It’s been a concern all along this process. Of everybody making these decisions, we don’t think these folks have been heard. The last-minute change of leasing by the bedroom is the sticking point.”

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