JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Neighbors of a 58-acre piece of farmland won a victory Tuesday when the Johnson City Regional Planning Commission recommended the most restrictive form of residential zoning (R-2A) among three options that were being considered.
Residents of the Highland Parc subdivision adjacent to the Sugg property turned out in force for the public hearing on the proposal for the property bounded by Boones Station Road, P Keefauver Road and Highland Park itself. Allied Development’s original proposal, heard at the July 12 meeting, included a non-binding concept plan that called for 221 single-family townhomes based on the “R-2C” zoning classification.
“Our ask has always been to consider building this in a coordinated manner to what is around it,” Andrew Ferguson of Laurel Canyon Road told commissioners. Highland Parc is zoned R-2A, which requires a minimum lot size of 12,000 square feet, which falls between a quarter and a third of an acre.
The planning commission’s strategic planning committee met on the issue Aug. 3 after commissioners deadlocked on proposals to approve R-2C, which has a minimum lot size of 6,000 square feet, and to approve R-2A, and defeated a motion to approve R2B, which carries a 9,000-square-foot minimum lot size.
The committee recommended either R-2A or R-2B, and while city staff recommended approval, its narrative noted any of the three designations would be appropriate.
Allied had submitted two updated concept plans. One was still R-2C but had trimmed the number of homes to 200 and included more green space. The other would qualify for R-2B and had 184 lots with an average size of 9,915 square feet and 5.2% “open space.” It also “blended” the development, with larger lots near the borders with Highland Park and smaller ones closer to Boones Station Road. Allied did not submit a concept that would qualify for R-2A.
About eight residents voiced concerns dominated by traffic worries but with numerous nods to the area’s relatively pastoral setting and the likely difference in the new homes’ density and character.
“I’m not opposed to development,” said David Lambert, another Laurel Canyon resident. “I’m not opposed to houses in my back yard instead of cows…but I’m asking that you seriously consider R-2A.”
Allied’s John McKenzie spoke following those who were opposed.
“We always want to understand the community, and part of that understanding was understanding what product needs to be in the community,” McKenzie said.
He said the company listened to concerns voiced July 12 and built more green space into its new proposal, as well as blending lot sizes, and likely home sizes and price points, with larger lots and more expensive homes closer to Highland Parc.
The reason Allied wasn’t proposing an entire subdivision of larger or higher-priced homes, McKenzie said, “is because of the budget of folks that actually have to live in these properties. “Not everyone can afford $700,000, so we look at the market conditions.”
In the end, existing residents’ concerns won out as the planning commission voted 6-2 to approve vice chairman Ben Whitfield’s recommendation to the City Commission to approve the annexation request with an R-2A.
While the city commission could still approve R-2C if Allied continues to request it, McKenzie said the company is likely to return to the drawing board and see if it can devise an R-2A concept plan that works financially for the land, the market and the company.
“Everything’s been based upon trying to implement a plan that’s less expensive, so we’ll have to do a concept plan that shows feasibility, what those costs are, what the product is going to entail,” McKenzie said. “That’s why I tried to present the fact that most of the product that’s sitting on those (Highland Parc) lots right now are selling for over 6 to 700.
“We’re not going to give up on this property. We’re not going to give up on proceeding forward.”
Ferguson, who took a bit of a leadership role with the residents’ group, called Tuesday’s result “exactly what I was hoping for.”
He said neighbors almost certainly made the difference between approval of the original R-2C request and the end result.
“I think that by being strategic and open and honest and forthcoming and factual, we were able to kind of present an alternative opinion to what seemed to have been conveyed, and at the end of the day it seemed like that made more sense to the folks making the decision.”
Ferguson said he fully expects a rapid pace of continued development in and around Johnson City, including in his area. He said he believes the city needs to begin annexing county roads that are likely to be carrying significantly more traffic, as staff said was planned for Boone Station Road in the case of this proposal.
He said he’s been pleased overall in his interactions with city staff as he studied his neighborhood’s issue and that he’s concerned about how quickly the city can rework some of its growth-related regulations.
“The current economic environment is such that Johnson City stands to be the beneficiary of a national recession,” he said. “We’re in that, or we go into that, and I don’t know that we have all of the control mechanisms in place to dictate how we want growth to work.
“I don’t know that we don’t, because I don’t understand the details there enough. But that’s a very legitimate concern that I have…The question is, can we get it done as a community fast enough?”
Aaron Murphy, the sole city commissioner also on the planning commission, voted in favor of the R-2A recommendation and seemed to echo what Ferguson was saying. He said city elected leaders are “committed to smart growth,” and that “you guys are first,” pointing to the Highland Park residents.
“We are pro-development, but growing in the way that we want it to look like is important to us,” Murphy said. “I know this is not the last one we’ll have a tough one to deal with.”