The Haslam administration has high hopes for the Magnolia Avenue Corridor Plan, which was approved last September with strong City Council and Metropolitan Planning Commission support. The plan had been in the works for two years and is designed to kick-start the revitalization of the city's major eastern corridor. It was the result of collaborative efforts by planners, city officials, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Magnolia Area Merchants' Association, and assorted eastside business owners and neighborhood representatives.
Last month, however, in a move that surprised many observers, MPC disregarded the recommendation of its professional staff and voted 6-4 to recommend that City Council amend the Magnolia plan to accommodate a politically connected applicant who wants to open a used-car lot. Three of the panel's 15 members were absent and two recused themselves from voting.
Amending the sector plan is the first step of a two-step process, and is followed by a rezoning vote once the sector plan is changed. But last month, the process hit a snag when a couple of commissioners who voted for the plan amendment came down with a case of buyers' remorse when it came time to rezone the property from C-3 (general commercial) to C-4 (highway and arterial commercial allowing outdoor displays and flea markets). They expressed fear of what might happen in the future should the car lot fail. The rezoning vote was postponed until Jan. 14 and the planning staff was instructed to find a way to impose restrictions on potential uses.
Zoning designations stay with the property regardless of the owner, and C-4 zoning allows almost anything from drive-in commercial uses, souvenir shops, roadside stands, curio shops, fruit or vegetable stands, garden centers, greenhouses and nurseries, new and used farm implement and machinery sales, truck and trailer rentals and sales, motorcycle sales, repair, and service lots, tombstone sales, mobile home sales, marinas and bait shops to flea markets.
Outgoing MPC Chair Trey Benefield, who was presiding over his last meeting, voted against amending the sector plan and warned that this is "spot zoning," which is illegal.
Commissioner Becky Longmire, who has a policy of opposing sector-plan amendments, said she made an exception this time because Magnolia Avenue so desperately needs private-sector investment.
"You promise you'll do it right? You promise it'll be okay?" she asked.
The applicant, Jacqueline Whiteside, was supported by new 6th District City Council member Daniel Brown, who made an appearance at the December meeting on her behalf.
Whiteside said that the used-car lot would create four full-time and four part-time jobs for East Knoxville residents.
"I work really, really hard," she said. "I put all my sweat equity and all my money into East Knoxville… I'm doing work with the federal government on all federal landscapes, all over the world.... I can't promise you I'm going to succeed, but I have people with the know-how to run an upscale car lot.... My husband and myself are trying to show our children that you have to work, that you can't expect something for nothing."
She concluded by promising to make the car lot "very, very nice."
Commissioner Bart Carey voted to deny the sector-plan change on the initial vote, but broke the 5-5 deadlock on the second vote, flipping the tally to 6-5.
Whiteside is CEO of MPi Business Solutions, which she co-founded with her husband Troy, who accompanied her to the meeting. Commissioner Mose Lobetti sat with them in the audience after recusing himself from voting.
When it became apparent that several commissioners intended to oppose the Whiteside request, Lobetti attempted to rescind his recusal so he could vote on the zoning question. He was rebuffed by MPC attorney Steven Wise.
A letter the commissioners received in October from former MPC Commissioner Chet Kilgore warning them to beware the unintended consequences of rezoning probably added to the queasiness about this vote. Kilgore specifically cited the dangers of C-4 zoning, which has allowed a flea market to move into a lot at the corner of Broadway and Grainger Avenue in one of the most visible locations in North Knoxville.
"To my friend Mayor Haslam and the City Council members, and to [MPC executive director] Mark Donaldson and my former colleagues at MPC: Please remember when you are considering a rezoning request that you are approving the least desirable use of the property listed in the rezoning request… the bad that comes with the good intentions can come back to bite us all," Kilgore wrote.
MPC planner Mark Brusseau, who specializes in rezonings, development plan review, and one-year plans, argued against the Whiteside request because it is not compatible with the Magnolia Avenue Plan. He says he is attempting to comply with the commissioners' request that he come up with conditions that will make C4 zoning more palatable. But his original recommendation to deny the request hasn't changed, he says.
Conspicuously absent from the discussion of the Whiteside proposal was any mention of legal difficulties that could cloud Troy Whiteside's future plans. He has been charged with second-degree murder and faces a preliminary hearing later this month in the shooting of Stacey Suddarth, who was gunned down in a Martin Luther King Boulevard parking lot Aug. 22 after a confrontation with Whiteside, who claims self-defense. He also faces legal action from Suddarth's survivors, who have hired attorney Herb Moncier to sue Whiteside for damages in a wrongful death action.
The preliminary hearing will be conducted by Cocke County Judge Ben Strand and prosecuted by the Greene County attorney general's office, because District Attorney General Randy Nichols and all Knox County General Sessions Court judges have recused themselves due to personal relationships with Whiteside, who has long been a player in Republican Party politics.
Meanwhile, MPC Commissioner Laura Cole was one of four who voted against changing the sector plan, and she doesn't sound like she intends to go along with the rezoning:
"I voted no on the sector-plan amendment and rezoning request because it is inappropriate," Cole says. "Not only did this fail to meet any of the requirements for a sector-plan amendment, the zoning requested conflicts with the recently adopted Magnolia Avenue Corridor Plan. I was very disappointed to see that we are already chipping away at this plan and adding spots of commercial. As a community, we need to say what we mean or mean what we say."
If the Whiteside request is approved at the January meeting, it will be passed along to City Council, where there could be a spirited contest between two new members of council—Brown, who supports the rezoning, and Nick Della Volpe, who participated in the Magnolia Avenue planning process.
Corrected: Bart Carey is not the incoming Commission Chair; that would be Robert Anders.