Expansion clears Historic Zoning Commission
Published 9:30 am Wednesday, October 15, 2014
After a series of downtown property owners explained why they didn’t want it to happen, the city’s Historic Zoning Commission voted 5-2 Tuesday to expand the city’s historic zone to include the entire downtown.
The historic district currently includes from Sycamore Street east to U.S. Highway 19E on East Elk Avenue and surrounding side streets. Now, the district would extend to Lynn Avenue from East Elk Avenue and the Elk Avenue-facing block of E Street.
The expansion still requires approval from the Elizabethton Regional Planning Commission and City Council before becoming final.
Before the commission voted, the group heard from a group of downtown property owners opposed to the expansion.
Chris Cannon said as a business owner, he opposed the expansion because additional historic district regulations would discourage new businesses from locating in the downtown area. He said some franchises had their own set of requirements and would not consider opening in an area that had requirements that went against what they wanted for their businesses.
“We looked at this with the idea of bringing businesses in and this is not a pro, this is a con,” Cannon said. “This will put another speed bump in the road for any potential business that is thinking of locating in downtown.”
Cannon also questioned the results of polls showing a majority of the downtown property owners were in favor of the expansion. He said most of the owners he had spoken to were against it. He suggested the commission count the vote by property parcels, not by owners because some owners owned multiple lots in the district. He noted the Cannons’ properties were not even included in the list.
“I think there needs to be a recount,” Cannon said.
Cannon explained he is a supporter of expansion and growth in downtown. He said the recent efforts by the planning department to alert property owners to areas that needed attention had been successful and felt that was the path the downtown needed to continue following.
“I am the No. 1 person for downtown,” Cannon said. “I don’t want it to be the preservation of empty buildings. I don’t want our history to be an empty one. I want us to have a thriving downtown. We do not need another Big Brother watching over our backs. We need to look at economic development, and we can still protect our history at the same time.”
Downtown property owner Judy Gwinn also spoke in opposition. She said downtown property or business owners are struggling enough to meet the demands of rent or mortgage payments, taxes, utilities and upkeep without having additional restrictions to deal with.
She also referenced the planning department’s recent focus on downtown as a successful way to improve the district without adding more regulations.
“I think what they have done with the letters, and pointing out what needs to be fixed has helped,” she said.
She also asked if the district would provide the same benefits for businesses that it had for private residences.
Robert Stout also questioned the need for the expansion of the historic district into the rest of downtown.
“I think we have enough regulation,” he said. “The city already has its hands full. I don’t think we need it. Anyone willing to put enough money into buying a building in downtown already has the feeling that downtown is special. Have you had anyone lately who wanted to buy a building in downtown and then tear it down and build a new one? People don’t want to come into downtown and change things.”
Commission chair Sarah Baker addressed some of these concerns. She said while property owners now might not want to tear down buildings and change downtown, there is no guarantee they wouldn’t want to in the future. She said having the district in place would protect those buildings
She also said historic districts traditionally have improved the economy for business districts by encouraging new growth and bringing in tourists to generate more revenue. She added the commission was there to work with and help the property owners when it came time to make changes to the exterior of their buildings.
Commissioner David Pinckard said as a former downtown business owner he knew what it was like trying to do business in downtown. He said business owners did not want to be told what they could or couldn’t do with their properties and didn’t need the extra regulations.
“The historic district is perfect for houses and neighborhoods, but I question if it is right for downtown,” Pinckard said.
Commissioner Jeff Treadway said he was “conflicted” about the expansion. He said he heard the concerns from the owners about how hard it was to do business in downtown and how they did not want additional regulations.
“I hear this, but I am back to my original question of do we value our historic structures enough to take the steps to protect them,” Treadway said. “Most people would not come to downtown to do harm, but without that tool in place to protect them, people can do what they want to those buildings.”
Both Helen Wilson and Jacey Augustus expressed their support for the expansion and said it would be a positive for downtown.
Commissioner John Large made the motion to approve the expansion, which was seconded by Augustus. Augustus, Large, Wilson, Baker and Treadway voted in favor. Pinckard and Forrest Bennett voted against.
The commission also voted 6-1 to rescind the motion to print an agenda for the commission with each meeting announcement. Baker said City Council and the Elizabethton Regional Planning Commission did not publish agendas and it was not required by law. She said agendas were available at City Hall before the meeting date.
Pinckard cast the only vote against the recension.
The commission elected officers for the coming year.
Baker will continue to serve as chair. Treadway was nominated for chair but turned it down, instead accepting the vice-chair position. Pinckard received a nomination for vice-chair but turned it down, explaining he stayed in Florida five months out of the year so he could not be at every meeting. Augustus will serve as secretary.