The Chattanooga Historic Zoning Commission, after hours of discussion on Thursday, approved one new home on a steep hillside in St. Elmo, but rejected a similar one that was to have gone in beside it.
Watchtower Investments initially wanted three identical large new homes clustered together between Tennessee Avenue and Seneca Avenue near Forest Hill Cemetery.
The Community Association of Historic St. Elmo held a meeting with the developer on June 7 that drew the largest crowd in the group's history. The vice president of the association said afterward that 89 voted against the project and four were in favor.
Jason Craven, project manager, said the group had made some concessions since the original presentation of the three homes. One was to have separate requests for homes on two parcels. The third parcel owned by Watchtower was not mentioned.
He said some large trees on the property would be retained, and he pointed to other large new homes built recently in steep areas of St. Elmo as precedent. He also said several attached garages could be found in the historic community. Several residents said some trees would be lost to the construction and others would eventually die. One said, "If this house fits in with the neighborhood, why are they trying so hard to hide it?"
Access to the project would be by the extension of a street above that has long been platted, but never built out.
The board voted to approve a home at 4182 Tennessee Ave. on the motion of Matt McDonald, a realtor who serves on the board as a representative of the general public. Noting that several board members had objected to an attached story and a half garage at the rear, his motion was contingent on the garage being only one story. Only one board member voted against the approval.
The panel then considered a new home at 4186 Tennessee Ave. It remained very similar to the first one, but now included an upper story balcony reached by two French doors. One resident said with the tall garage sticking up at the top it appeared to be four stories tall.
Architect Thomas Palmer, a Planning Commission representative, said it was "too much house and it is too close to the next one." His motion to deny was backed by all members except Mr. McDonald.
One St. Elmo resident spoke in favor of the project, saying more housing stock is needed in St. Elmo. He said his sister wanted to move there and he made a bid 25 percent higher than the asking price on a 1,200-square-foot home and still did not get it. He said he welcomed "a boutique builder as long as it is not a Green Tech type blow and go."
Other residents expressed concern about the "mass" of the three homes being out of character for historic St. Elmo as well as worries about water runoff. Denise Shaw, a St. Elmo resident and architect, said, "There is no place for the water to go but down." She also said, "They want to build the biggest houses possible so they can sell it for the biggest price possible. Meanwhile, quality smaller homes in St. Elmo are flying off the shelf."
One resident in favor of the project said the three parcels were platted in 1916 by Edward Betts, who felt over a century ago that they were not of inappropriate size for new St. Elmo homes.
At one point, Mr. McDonald referred to the "mob-like" atmosphere surrounding the controversy. Several of the St. Elmo residents took offense and he later apologized. Margaret Davis, who lives further up the hill, said with good humor, "I can't wait to tell my children and grandchildren that I was part of a mob."
Mr. McDonald's full quote was, "I'd like to start out by apologizing for poor choice of words with you guys, and I'm sorry that I made any of you feel like you were some unruly mob. That really wasn't my intent. My intent was just to make the point that there's been many times in recorded history when the loudest of courses were not necessarily advocating for the best courses of action. In this case, specifically, height is the primary issue. There's many other points that have been made outside of our purview, and are not covered by the guidelines as they relate to new construction. This is a very similar case to the prior case that we just saw. I feel the same way that the second-story garage is not necessarily in keeping with the guidelines because it brings the scale to a point that's just out of scale. I also have a question about the porch and the windows and doors that lead to the porch."
At the start of the meeting, Chairman Steve Lewin recused himself because of his connection with the project. He is one of two St. Elmo residents on the commission.