JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Johnson City’s four newest zoning designations are being scrapped before their maiden voyage — creating another delay in a 500-home planned subdivision that would mark the city’s most significant annexation in years.

The so-called Keebler annexation would bring into the city 135 acres near Washington County’s Ridgeview School in Gray. Developer and owner Danny Karst plans to prep the infrastructure before national builder D.R. Horton comes in builds on the individual lots. Karst and several other regional companies have used the model since Horton entered the market a couple years ago.

The annexation remains on the Johnson City Commission’s agenda for a final reading Thursday night, but the “Rural Neighborhood” zoning category envisioned for it is no longer on the table. The city’s planning staff has recommended that the commission defer its decision until May 4, and then have the first of three required readings under a request for one of the pre-existing zoning categories — but possibly with some added flexibility and an open space requirement.

A concept plan for the Keebler annexation subdivision from 2022. Washington County’s Ridgeview School is shown in the upper left. (City of Johnson City)

Interim Planning and Development Services Director Will Righter said city officials have met with Karst about the latest wrinkle, which just occurred last week.

“He’s been very patient and flexible in working through this process,” Righter said. “I think he understands, I can’t get inside of his mind but from all of my interactions with Mr. Karst he wants to make sure he gets this right and to create a good development that’s good for the community.”

City staff developed the rural neighborhood and three other new categories during a long process last year, partly to update regulations as the city experienced its fastest growth in years.

“I think there were a lot of good intentions, because we’re experiencing a great deal of growth,” Righter said. “It felt like when we were going through this process maybe there were some inadequacies in our current zoning districts, so it seemed to make sense to look at doing something new.”

Righter said the Planning Commission recently decided that with a new urban growth plan just a year or two out, they preferred sticking with the current zoning categories with two primary changes.

Those include something called “lot averaging,” which would allow lots down to 80% of the minimum designated size and up to 120% of that size as long as the average size met the zone’s requirement.

For instance, if the minimum designated lot size was 7,000 square feet, some lots could be as small as 5,600 square feet and others as large as 8,400 square feet.

Interim Planning and Development Services Director Will Righter. (WJHL photo)

Righter said staff thinks that change “would be more than adequate to have neighborhoods and subdivisions that are more desirable to live in and more pleasingly aesthetic.”

The other likely change would involve implementing a regulation that would govern requirements for the amount of open space not within private lots that a development would need to include. The regulation would include some specifics on how that space looks.

“The lot averaging and the implementation of open space, staff believes that those would be good things for not just that development but all developments going forward,” Righter said. City officials have said a number of additional developments, some of them large and involving annexation, are at various stages in the pipeline.

Righter called the changes, which the Johnson City Regional Planning Commission will consider first, “game changers in a way within the development community.”

Those changes were developed and tweaked in a process that included public workshops.

“You’re always trying to make sure that you’re considering the needs of the development community (and) the citizens and that’s not always an easy thing to do,” Righter said.

He said staff and elected officials “have been very pragmatic and deliberate” as they’ve worked through the lot averaging and open space discussions, which he called “very critical” to guiding development “with the idea to create more pleasing, livable residential developments.”

Staff already knew the new growth plan was pending when they started developing the four now-scrapped designations. When asked why they worked on them anyway, Righter said that was “a great question.”

Whether any of that work makes it into official policy once the new growth plan is complete remains to be seen, Righter said.

“The growth plan may or may not warrant creating new zoning districts,” he said. “I would suspect that we will see a few more developments come in between now and then at the rate we’re going, so I think we will be able to see where we’re at with the lot averaging by the time we’re ready to implement the growth plan.”