Rezoning Challenge to Magnolia Avenue Corridor Plan Stumbles

Troy Whiteside cut an imposing figure in a custom-made suit, gold watch, and French cuffs when he appeared at the January meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Commission last Thursday to ask for a rezoning that would allow him to put a used car lot inside the new Magnolia Avenue Corridor. The politically connected Whiteside argued against having any restrictions imposed on his plan and didn't appear to be subject to the MPC rule limiting applicants to five minutes. Members of the planning body weathered five separate votes and Whiteside's verbal beatdown before voting 9-3 (or maybe 8-4; MPC voice vote record-keeping is sketchy) to recommend denial of the rezoning that represents the first challenge to the Magnolia Avenue Corridor Plan.

"Let me assure you that this project will be successful," said Whiteside, who said his family business, federal contractor MPi Solutions, pumps more than $5 million annually into the East Knoxville economy. "You guys are really charged with working with the staff and finding unique ways to be flexible when it benefits the entire community…. This community is in dire need of not just economic stimulus but somebody to set an example with their own private dollars… It's a different ball game when you've got your own skin on the line… Failure is not an option."

MPC Chair Robert Anders contested Whiteside's assertion: "Our major task is land use—not economic development."

The Magnolia plan was two years in the making and is designed to revitalize the city's once-proud major eastern corridor. The end product was the result of collaborative efforts by planners, city officials, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Magnolia Avenue-area business and professional organizations and assorted Eastside business owners and neighborhood representatives. It was zoned C-3 (general commercial), and approved in September. Whiteside and his wife, Jacqueline, bought the property in November and want it rezoned to C-4 to allow a used car lot, a use not allowed in C-3 zones. Whiteside's opposition says the plan had wide support and should not be amended before it has been given a chance to succeed.

Some commissioners said they fear setting a bad precedent. Rezoning the property to C-4 would allow uses like the 24/7-yard sale at the corner of Grainger Avenue and Broadway. And zoning designations stay with the land, even when it changes ownership.

It took the planning body two months to come to a split decision on Whiteside's used car lot. In December, the commissioners voted 6-4 to disregard the advice of their professional staff and approve a sector plan amendment, which is the first half of the two-step process required to rezone property within the Magnolia corridor. The rezoning vote was postponed until January when several Whiteside supporters got nervous about C-4 zoning and asked the planning staff to come up with conditions that might make it palatable to its critics. Two commissioners, Mose Lobetti and Ursula Bailey, recused themselves from voting and three others were absent.

But in January, however, Whiteside undercut his support by rejecting the six conditions—particularly the one placing the car lot's entrance on a side street rather than on Magnolia—on the basis that imposing them would make it impossible for him to do business. The three December absentees all voted against the rezoning and the split decision (yes on the sector plan, no on the rezoning) means that although the sector plan amendment is approved, City Council will have the last word on the rezoning, probably late next month.

Whiteside, who is a high-profile Republican Party activist, argued his position for far longer than the five minutes than the rules allow applicants to speak, touting his track record of business success and emphasizing that he's investing his own money in the project.

MPC Commissioner Art Clancy, one of Whiteside's most vocal supporters, made the first motion to approve the rezoning, subject to the six restrictions the staff devised between the December and January meetings.

"To slap down the first one that steps up to the plate and says ‘I'll put my money in—let's get this thing going,' I have a hard time with that," said Clancy, who remarked several times that he lives in the neighborhood—a liberal interpretation, since the home address listed for him on the MPC website is North Hills Boulevard.

Whiteside's complaints about the conditions, which include setbacks, buffers and placing the entrance on a side street, seemed to irritate several commissioners, who pointed out that the staff was instructed to come up with conditions to help him get the votes he needed.

The elephant in the room that nobody mentioned was the second-degree murder charge Whiteside faces in the death of Reginald Stacy Sudderth, who was shot more than 10 times in a Martin Luther King Boulevard parking lot August 22 after a confrontation with Whiteside, who claims self-defense and says the unarmed Sudderth threatened his family. Whiteside also faces a lawsuit from Sudderth's survivors, who have hired attorney Herb Moncier to represent them in a wrongful death action.

The case is set for preliminary hearing this month and will be heard by Cocke County Judge Ben Strand. It is being prosecuted by the Greene County attorney general's office because District Attorney General Randy Nichols and all the Knox County General Sessions Court judges have recused themselves due to personal relationships with Whiteside.