Update: The Johnson City Planning Commission denied a request Tuesday night to rezone the College Heights property from R-3 to R-4.
Planning commissioners denied a motion to approve the rezoning, with three voting yes and four voting no. The meeting adjourned with a round of applause from the public audience.
The result still allows Randall Beckner to put up to 25 housing units on the property, which is currently the site of one house and one duplex. Beckner’s initial site plan was for 16 townhouses and three duplexes, if the zoning changed to R-4.
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Neighbors on two different sides of Johnson City faced similar circumstances last week: rezoning requests that would pave the way for new multifamily developments that many of them didn’t want in their backyards.
It’s a phenomenon Assistant City Manager Randy Trivette said is likely to intensify as housing demand remains high and developers seek so-called “infill” opportunities in pockets of land inside the city limits.
“We’re very much in favor of infill growth and infill development if it’s done properly,” Trivette said.
In one of the two recent examples, opposition at a neighborhood meeting for a project adjoining the Town Acres neighborhood most likely had an impact on a developer pulling the item from Tuesday night’s planning commission agenda.
Owners Mark and Kelley Townsend wanted a rezoning of that 6.6-acre parcel from R-3 to R-4 (two different levels of medium-density residential). R-4 would have allowed them to build 80 townhouses/apartments on a piece of land that abuts Town Acres and the single-family homes there on one side, and development of small retirement-style detached houses on the other.
The current R-3 zoning would allow about 45 units.
The other project — also involving a request to rezone from R-3 to R-4 — also drew opposition from neighbors in the College Heights neighborhood at a Friday meeting, but remained on the planning commission’s Tuesday docket. Set atop a hill on about 3.3 acres, developer Randy Beckner’s plan calls for putting 16 townhouses and three duplexes on property currently occupied by one home and a very large yard.
“What the city is calling infill trying to find vacant, unused parts of the city that are just empty — this isn’t that,” neighbor Kenny Suit said Monday.
“That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about two or three plots that already have homes on them. Now one of the homes has a large yard, that’s true, but that’s not a vacant, undeveloped property.”
Suit planned to express his opposition for a second time at Tuesday’s planning commission meeting and expected multiple neighbors to join him.
‘We want them to understand we hear them’
Trivette said as the city grows and housing demand remains high, people are putting pockets of land up for sale within the city that contains enough acreage for residential development, be it multi-family or single-family. And developers are finding that property, jumping on it and planning projects.
“They like the infill because the infrastructure is already there, capacity’s usually already there,” Trivette said. “Roads and closeness to development for business and commercial growth is already there.”
But Trivette said he supports a process for decision-making on these matters that takes into account everyone’s perspectives, as well as the pertinent objective facts on the ground. When projects come up for approval, residents often have two or even three chances to express their thoughts and opinions — at neighborhood meetings with a developer, at the planning commission and again at the city commission if planning commission members approve a project.
“They’re exercising their rights to come to these public meetings and express their support or their opposition, and we hear them,” Trivette said.
In the case of the Town Acres project, “I really feel like (public comment) had something to do with the petitioner pulling their agenda item,” he said.
“They pulled it to postpone it till next month, but that probably gives them a little more time to evaluate and see if the cost is worth the benefit of pursuing that and going forward or if they want to just leave it like it is and leave it with the current zoning.”
Fred Gordon heads East Tennessee State University’s (ETSU) Master in Public Administration program. He said public input is essential as growing communities deal with development and that neighbors often bring very important perspectives when infill development is being considered.
“The residents are the ones who have the greatest knowledge and history,” Gordon said. “They’ve been there for years, maybe decades, and so they ultimately can see how change has happened, what has worked, what hasn’t worked.”
Projects like the one on College Heights are complicated, he said. From topography and traffic to location next to a mature single-family neighborhood, they don’t necessarily fit easily into a box.
“I think a lot of times there’s a lot of economic and social pressures designed to … move in a different direction in terms of creating greater opportunity for multifamily units and so forth,” Gordon said. “But at the same time, you have to use multiple lenses to understand this type of project.”
Gordon called the growth Johnson City’s experiencing “really encouraging,” but said even with heavy pressure to add housing, each case needs to be looked at carefully.
“In this issue, it’s right near ETSU and so that’s a great thing and it could be an opportunity for students, an opportunity for lower-income families to become part of this community,” he said. “But at the same time, there needs to be pragmatic, practical steps to make sure that this is the best way forward.”
‘You do need the science’
Gordon said given the fact that neighbors are generally going to be leery of nearly any project coming into their backyards, the political variable of public opinion and the economic variable of growth in the tax base aren’t all that needs to be measured.
He said the fact that the planning commission and city commission have said ‘no’ to some projects and ‘yes’ to others is a sign that the city is considering not just opinions and not just the bottom line, but what he called “the science”.
“It shows that there’s a vetting process or some level of ways to qualify these types of projects,” Gordon said. “You can’t necessarily rely upon past precedents, meaning you need to look at each project individually and to understand its impact short term, potentially long term.”
“So it’s encouraging to know that it’s not simply a straight shot in terms of developing or not developing a project.”
For his part, Trivette hopes to see the city’s planning staff take an even more engaged role in analyzing each project — to the point of showing not just the pros of a particular request, but also the cons.
“It can’t be city-wide, basically cookie cutter type approvals or denials,” Trivette said.
“It’s got to be bullet listed. It’s got to be data that’s collected on that specific project and then they (staff) make their recommendation and then they’ve got to be able to stand up and defend their recommendation.”
“Whether it’s to approve it or deny, it’s not an easy way out just to say ‘staff recommends approving’ and then let the planning commission or the city commission make the final decision.”
In the long term, Trivette said he’s optimistic the city can manage its current growth phase in a balanced way. That would involve a minimum of what he called “urban sprawl,” and as much infill using existing services and infrastructure as possible.
“When growth occurs people want it to be in some other areas, some other place, you know, ‘not in my backyard’,” he said.
“You’ve got to take infill properties, you’ve got to be able to develop those but I think we can develop those in a way that’s smart, that will satisfy the neighborhood and transition from that neighborhood into even more density, but also satisfy the intent and the need from the city to have this growth coming into our community.”