Whitland homeowners who opposed and defeated a historic overlay in their neighborhood are seeking a change in state law to ensure that the heated, divisive battles over such issues never happen again in Nashville.
A bill amending the Tennessee Historic Zoning Act has been introduced in the state legislature that would mandate how Metro Nashville handles efforts to declare neighborhoods “historic.” If enacted, the law would apply only to Davidson County.
If the bill is enacted into law, it would require that property owners living in affected areas approve the zoning and that the Metro Historic Commission certify that property values will not be diminished because of the zoning. The bill also states that the commission would be responsible for the mailing of ballots and tabulating the results.
Todd and Kate McKee, who live at 212 Cantrell Ave., pushed for the legislation out of frustration they and others said they experienced in fighting an effort to impose an overlay on their neighborhood. “We felt the process wasn’t organized and transparent,” said Todd McKee, who is in-house counsel for Meharry Medical College. “The lack of process was very frustrating. We want to want to avoid what happened in our neighborhood, the chaos and strife of pitting neighbor against neighbor.”
Proponents of the overlay wanted the zoning to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood by limiting the ability to expand houses or tear them down to build new structures.
Rep. Beth Harwell (R-Nashville), in whose district Whitland is located, is among the legislators behind the bill.
This bill comes on the heels of not just the overlay battle in Whitland, but also a similar struggle in Sylvan Park, where property owners rejected the overlay after months of debate.
Metro Councilman John Summers created a firestorm of controversy when he pushed for the overlays in Whitland and Sylvan Park. There was much wrangling, and on the final reading he agreed to a polling process with mail-in ballots. It revealed majorities opposed to the overlays in both neighborhoods. Summers couldn’t be reached for comment on the legislation.
Harwell stated that proposed bill is in direct response to the controversy in the Whitland neighborhood. She said she was reluctant to get involved in a local matter, but felt that state laws dealing with historic overlays should be clarified.
“We want to protect our historic communities and try to work out something that all can agree on,” she said.
The McKees have a 2,500-square-foot, 1930s-era house on a quarter of an acre lot. Todd McKee said the only way to improve the value and square footage of the house is to add a second floor. That is where the value is to him and his wife as well as future buyers, he said. If the overlay had been passed, they wouldn’t have been able to add onto the house.
“Tennessee has long recognized that property owners are completely able to gauge the value of their property,” McKee said.
Todd McKee said they aren’t against historic zoning, adding that it is good for neighborhoods where a problem exists. “In our neighborhood, there’s nothing broken, so nothing needs to be fixed,” he said. “When applied correctly, [the zoning] encourages investment in a neighborhood.”
He said in East Nashville, for example, historic and conservation overlays encouraged investment in those neighborhoods, which had been down trodden, and real estate values have since soared. With Whitland, its location off West End and just outside the I-440 loop has pushed values up and brought investment, McKee noted.
The bill almost died before it ever got started. Sen. Jim Bryson (R-Franklin) is sponsoring it in the State Senate instead of State Sen. Douglas Henry (D-Nashville). There was speculation that Bryson might withdraw his sponsorship of the legislation because of the controversy around the issue. While he supports private property rights, he is also wary of telling another county how it should handle zoning issues.
Any bill making its way through the State House must have a companion bill in the State Senate. Had Bryson not filed before today’s deadline to submit Senate bills, the matter would have been moot.
Bryson told NashvillePost.com he was filing the bill as a favor to Harwell and Rep. Ulysses Jones (D-Memphis). Jones is listed as another sponsor of the house bill. According to Bryson, Harwell and Jones will work out problems with the bill in committee and the current proposal is not in its final form.
Harwell said she had spoken with Henry and that she hoped that he would be on board for the final bill. Henry, however, told NashvillePost.com this morning that he felt the matter was the domain of the Metro Council and that he was “skeptical” of the bill.
To see a copy of the legislation, click this link.