JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The South Roan Street property slated for new apartments to replace the John Sevier Center (JSC) is moving through the rezoning process — but not without opposition from residents of a nearby subdivision.
The 80 or so single-family homes in Garland Acres lie just a few hundred yards from where LHP Capital plans to build two three-story apartment buildings with 145 one-bedroom units at 2162 S. Roan St.
A Food City supermarket is adjacent to the north, while a strip of woods and a few commercial buildings fronting Roan Street separate the proposed site from Garland Acres, which is to the south.
About 10 residents spoke up at a June 14 planning commission meeting, opposing the proposed rezoning from B-4 (planned business) to RP-5 (planned residential), with one resident saying she had a petition with 108 signatures. Residents plan to speak out again at Thursday night’s Johnson City Commission meeting, where a public hearing will occur on the proposal as it goes through its second of three readings.
They’ve said they recognized the JSC residents’ need for higher-quality housing but added that their main concerns centered around an increase in homeless people encroaching on their neighborhood — something they say is already on the rise due to the proximity of an unused rail line, lots of woods and the foot of Buffalo Mountain not far away.
Shelby Holley lives on Circle View Drive and said he’s seen an increase in homeless people wandering through the neighborhood, including when he leaves for work around 4:30 a.m. He said a man tried to stop him recently and asked for a ride and that he’s seeing consistent foot traffic up and down South Roan Street, including people who cut through Garland Acres.
“My biggest concern is when you move that center there, you’re going to have a lot of the homeless invading that area and that neighborhood,” Holley said at the planning commission. “That neighborhood don’t need it. The people don’t want it, and I’m asking the city to not move it there.”
Holley and others mentioned the well-documented issues outside the JSC. The 11-story high rise, which provides subsidized apartments for low-income elderly and disabled people, has had problems with homeless people getting in including at night, congregating at an adjacent parking lot, and contributing to a high number of police calls there.
Caroline Hood of Bonita Drive referenced reports about the number of calls to JSC when she expressed her concerns. She said the neighborhood has had an increasing problem with homeless people passing through since she moved there almost nine years ago.
“Hannah and I, when we go on our walks, that is not the kind of neighborhood we signed up for when we moved here eight and a half years ago,” Hood said, standing at the microphone with her daughter. “I just think this is not fair to our subdivision.”
She asked planning commissioners, who later unanimously approved the rezoning request, to take those changes and the number of police calls at the JSC into consideration.
“When we bought the place, this wasn’t a problem,” she said. “Now you’re devaluing my property and making it impossible to sell because there’s gonna be 2,400 crimes right next to me. I don’t appreciate that at all.”
Asked about neighbors’ concerns Wednesday, Johnson City City Manager Cathy Ball said she was confident the new complex, which isn’t set to be completed until at least late 2025, isn’t likely to see the same type of issues the JSC does. She pointed to numerous other low-income complexes for elderly and disabled adults scattered around the city that aren’t experiencing the same types of problems and said JSC’s location and construction style both predispose it to issues.
“I think that folks tend to be victimized when they’re in situations where they’re very vulnerable, and unfortunately, when they’re located in a taller building and have less resources that tends to happen more,” Ball said.
She said there will be resources on site to help people with both physical and mental health needs. The complex is also on a bus line and next to a supermarket and pharmacy, which are all services required to be closely available wherever the JSC subsidized housing vouchers move.
Planning staff member Peyton Voirin told planning commissioners the same at their June meeting, saying that was one reason staff recommended the rezoning even though the city’s future land use plan recommends that it remain B-4.
“There will be other resources of professionals who’ll be helping these folks, and the way the facility’s laid out is so much easier to control who comes and goes than it is at the John Sevier,” Ball said.
“I think making the assumption that the way that the John Sevier is now and the issues are directly associated to the way that they would be in another location, I don’t think that’s accurate.”
Judy Herron, who lives on Oak Glen Circle, acknowledged a good outcome was possible when she spoke at the planning commission.
“I was at the neighborhood meeting and saw the developer. Great development, and if the management will stick to their guns, keep people from visiting that aren’t welcome and not let it run down like John Sevier does, I’m all for it because it will help people.”
But she said problems are definitely present in her neighborhood already. She recounted being awakened at 3 a.m. by a man wanting to get into her house and also said she wasn’t confident the neighbors’ voices would make a difference given the pressure to get the JSC project completed.
“The police do try,” Herron said. “I would like to see the city offer us a chance to have a neighborhood watch. But I feel this is a done deal. I mean we’re not gonna win anything.”
Ball said her desire is to work with citizens regardless of their concerns. She said the city is aware of homelessness issues near Garland Acres and that police have patrolled the area more frequently and cleaned up some camps there.
“I understand that people have concerns for different reasons and respect that,” she said. “I would say, we’ve met with some other property owners around, and what we’ve said, we’re partners in all of this – if there are issues and concerns we will work with them to address them.”
She pushed back against the notion that the people who currently live at JSC will automatically bring problems wherever they relocate, though.
“I think saying that folks who are in lower income or disabled are going to cause problems, I just don’t think that’s factual,” Ball said. “But I understand the fear. I understand the perception. But I think until there are really issues, it’s really hard to justify that.”