Historic Zoning Has Its Challenges

The ordinance, to which City Council was expected to give final approval on Tuesday evening (after my column deadline) would prohibit demolition of a building for 180 days following an application for protective historic (H-1) zoning on the property. The measure was sought by the city administration to cure a defect in the City Code on which the State Supreme Court based its invalidation of H-1 zoning on the Smith-Coughlin house. That invalidation allowed its owner, Cherokee Country Club, to proceed with demolition of the historic residence to make way for a parking lot.

mid-1980's

The proposed city ordinance that precipitated demolition of the Sprankle Building has also spurred a call for a comprehensive address to the designation and need for protection of historic buildings throughout the city.

The ordinance, to which City Council was expected to give final approval on Tuesday evening (after my column deadline) would prohibit demolition of a building for 180 days following an application for protective historic (H-1) zoning on the property. The measure was sought by the city administration to cure a defect in the City Code on which the State Supreme Court based its invalidation of H-1 zoning on the Smith-Coughlin house. That invalidation allowed its owner, Cherokee Country Club, to proceed with demolition of the historic residence to make way for a parking lot.

At the same time, when former Mayor Victor Ashe initiated H-1 zoning on the Smith-Coughlin house he also sought to apply it to the Sprankle building. But that application was held in abeyance when the building's owner, Home Federal Bank, agreed to hold off on its plans to raze the 100-year-old building. Now, Mayor Bill Haslam has blessed Home Federal's plans to erect a new headquarters building on the site. But once the new city ordinance takes effect, City Council could have initiated imposition of H-1 zoning on the property and thus at least delayed, if not forestalled, the Sprankle building's demolition.

During Council's prior deliberations on the new ordinance, Councilwoman Marilyn Roddy struck a responsive chord with her call for a "proactive" approach to placing protective (some would say restrictive) zoning on historic sites and buildings. Fellow Council members, city officials and preservationists alike nearly all seem in agreement that the city should resort to action only when a structure is immin-ently threatened with destruction.

Roddy objected to the ordinance (which nonetheless had majority support) on the grounds that it "does nothing to move our planning process out of a reactive stance and into proactive community planning. Rather than codify a stance of reactivity," she said, "I would like to see our community undertake a comprehensive inventory of properties of historic significance and engage in a dialogue about protecting these properties with historic overlay right now. In the future, when these properties changed hands, there will be full disclosure to all parties of the significance of and restrictions on a particular piece of property."

The executive director of Knox Heritage, Kim Trent, pointed out that the Metropolitan Planning Commission compiled just such an inventory in the mid-1980's. While acknowledging that it needs to be updated, Trent makes the further point that MPC urged protective measures at a time when preservation-mindedness wasn't as widespread as it is today. Indeed, the 1987 MPC report recommended that "all properties noted as eligible in this plan document should be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and placed under an H-1 Historic Overlay Zone as soon as possible."

MPC's impresario of historic designations, Ann Bennett, estimates that some 3,000 buildings in Knox County as a whole have been listed on the national register, based on determinations of eligibility by the state Office of Historic Preservation. Bennett reckons that slightly more than half of those have been incorporated into H-1 zones or their somewhat less restrictive counterpart, Neighborhood Conservation (NC-1) zones. Inclusions in these zones and any subsequent alterations or demolitions must be approved by the Historic Zoning Commission pursuant to a stringent set of criteria.

Mechanicsville, Fourth and Gill, Old North Knoxville, and Parkridge have all gotten H-1 overlays, and a number of other neighborhoods are covered by NC-1 designations, with several more in the works. But the process of formulating and adopting these zonings is laborious and time-consuming. Bennett almost single-handedly writes descriptions and takes pictures of every residence or other building slated for inclusion. She also holds neighborhood meetings to explain the ramifications of the zonings.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about what's entailed, and we spend a lot of time explaining them and allaying fears," Bennett says. A majority vote of affected property owners is required for a zoning to proceed, but she says, "We like to have better than 90 percent consent" and has obtained it in each case.

Conspicuous by their own omission from the list of covered properties are most of downtown's historic buildings. Only Market Square and a few individual landmarks such as Blount Mansion, Lamar House, Old City Hall and the downtown post office have H-1 overlays. When he was mayor, Ashe advocated extending them to all downtown buildings on the national register, of which there are more than 100. But Bennett held a meeting of downtown property owners to elicit interest and didn't get much uptake.

Only in a handful of instances has the city imposed H-1 zoning on a building without the property owner's consent. The Smith-Coughlin house is the most conspicuous example, and Ashe also got Council to approve protection for the erstwhile Fifth Avenue Motel (which is known to preservationists as the Minvilla). But Mayor Bill Haslam hasn't chosen to proceed in this fashion, though he's met privately with owners of several historic properties to gain their assent to designations.

To my own way of thinking, many more buildings on the national register deserve to be protected, both downtown and in historic neighborhoods. (National register status alone doesn't protect a building unless federal funding of a redevelopment is involved.) But hasty action will be jury-rigged, and adversarial proceedings are to be avoided if at all possible. So the process needs to be deliberate.

"I don't know how receptive City Council would be to having a massive number of proposed H-1s presented to them," says the chairman of the Historic Zoning Commission, Nick Arning, in a way that connotes understatement.

But how then to meet Roddy's point about not having buyers of historic properties caught unawares of poten-tial restrictions? Arning suggests that national register listings or other designations could be recorded in much the same way as easements or deed restrictions on a piece of property so that prospective buyers are put on notice.

At the same time, MPC and the HZC need more resources to expedite the processing of all the H-1 and NC-1 projects that are already pending, as well as to pursue downtown designations more proactively, to use Roddy's word. "Ann Bennett is doing the work of four people, and until we get more money and manpower, the workload associated with all of the H-1s and NC-1s that we're looking at is overwhelming," Arning says.

—Joe Sullivan

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