Historic Zoning Commission Works For The Developer, Not The Community - And Response (2)

Thursday, June 17, 2021
As a St. Elmo property owner for many years, I have followed the success of the community's preservation of our historic character.  The Historic Zoning Guidelines were crafted back around 1989 with the clear intent to preserve and protect the historic community; a Historic Zoning Commission was established to ensure Guidelines were followed. 

I have become increasingly aware that the Historic Zoning Commissions that have been sitting in recent history have apparently felt it their mission to guide developers around the Guidelines and to find ways to ignore clear violations of them. Indeed, the Commission is stacked in favor of development. 

Today's Historic Zoning Commission hearing was the worst I have witnessed in the entire history of the Commission. Not only did the Commission award a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) to a project that is out of scale and size with the neighborhood  (and with at least five other violations), the acting chairman, Matt McDonald, showed complete disrespect for the community by referring to those of us who expressed opposition as 'coming to mob rule."  

Really, Mr. McDonald.....citizens participating in a public meeting is "mob rule?"

It is past time that the Historic Commission's role in the Historic Zoning program was closely examined by the City Council and changes made to ensure that the program returns to its original purpose:  to preserve the historic integrity and character of St. Elmo.

Tim McDonald


* * * 

I am writing to respond to Mr. Tim McDonald’s (no relation) recent posting about yesterday’s Chattanooga Historic Zoning Commission Meeting.  

Our job as non-elected, unpaid volunteer members of this commission is to make decisions on cases based on the guidelines provided by each of the four distinct historic districts: St Elmo, Ferger Place, Battery Place and Fort Wood.  The guidelines for St. Elmo have a separate and well-defined section of rules for development of new construction homes in this historic district. 

While I cannot mention any specific details of this case outside of the publicly held commission meetings, I can say that I made a motion based on the builder’s plans as they relate to the new construction section of the St. Elmo historic guidelines.  In fact, I proposed a limitation on the developer's plans based on the rules of the new construction section of the guidelines, and that motion passed.  

During the committee member discussion, I made a poor choice of words by stating that we do not make decisions based on mob rule. I will admit that I could have and should have used different language in that instance. Again, I am not an elected politician, and I was aiming to state a valid point that I felt the commission members should consider in their decision. The point that I was trying to make to the commission was that we make decisions based on the plans provided by the applicant as they relate to the guidelines.  We do not make decisions based on the majority opinion of any group.  All applicants deserve that much from our commission. 

I would also like to add that, as a local realtor serving Chattanooga for the last 14 years, I am acutely aware of the shortage of homes available to home buyers. You might say that insight added some color to my decision-making process.  

I would like to close with an analogy that might illustrate the fact that fairness is needed on our commission with regard to current homeowners as well as developers planning new construction homes. Imagine if all the boat owners in Chattanooga banded together to demand that no more boats be sold in Chattanooga because there were too many boats on the lake for their liking.  How would that be fair to the local families that have been saving up to purchase their own boat?  

Matt McDonald 

* * * 

Historic Zoning Commissions require closer scrutiny but perhaps not for the reasons mentioned by Mr. McDonald. I know, my family nearly became one of their first victims for harassment after one was established in St. Elmo in the 1980s. The first time was over a front door that needed replacing, even as other homes in the community had been replaced with similar or same type doors. I believe I still have the letter sent threatening to take us to court, over all things, a front door. Guess, we were meant to be their test run.

The older door had window panes that kept loosening. No matter how we tried to replace them the panes would loosen. We even used a professional once or twice, but the panes continued to loosen, if not right away. One day my youngest son, only about eight or nine at the time, was at the front door knocking to come, but I was in the back of the house and didn't hear him. He continued to knock when his hand went through the loosen pane and nearly cut a main artery. He wasn't even banging hard on the door. 

The second time we were threatened was over the storm water ditch that snakes throughout all St. Elmo, down around Burnt Mill Road and into Burnt Mill Creek, on down into Georgia around Wilson Road. Sometimes, the ditch develops a foul odor, especially in the summer months. The odor can be caused by anything from dead animals or leaky sewage pipes that run from one side of the ditch to the other onto other people's property that have city easement lines on their property that carries the city's raw sewage. We have such an easement line our property. 

The dead animals, or even live ones, can be anything from turtles, catfish swimming/floating if dead-swimming/crawling if alive, salamanders, and even once our dog we had at the them dragged what appeared to be a horse femur from the ditch. I still remember the excitement on his face from having plucked such a large catch. 

As for leaky sewage pipes, we were the only home out of all the homes close to that ditch that snakes throughout the St. Elmo community wrongly accused of leaking raw sewage into the it. We had everyone from the EPA, health department, city sewage and waste water department and who knows what else agency breathing down our backs and threatening us. We had to hire a professional plumber to prove we weren't leaking anything into that ditch. That's how and when we discovered too a main city sewage line runs through our property that carries the city's raw sewage from everyone's home up the street to Buehler going towards St. Elmo Avenue, adjacent homes coming down from Florida Avenue, and even some homes going towards Tennessee Avenue. In fact, when it was discovered a home across the ditch was leaking raw sewage into it, everyone went silent the matter seemed to vanished. One could hear a rat peeing on cotton. We never heard from anyone ever again. We didn't even receive so much as an apology, nor any offer of reimbursement for being forced to hire a professional plumber to prove our innocence.

The hidden truth behind those so-called neighborhood commissions was to put barriers in place to prevent or limit certain 'undesirables' from moving in. I know this, because at the time I and a relative who also lived in St. Elmo during that period often went to some of those meetings. Although we were rarely if ever allowed to speak, and on the rare occasion we were the meetings were coming to a close. We were only welcomed as window dressings and nothing else just in case the media showed up.

So yes indeed! City Council, keep a close scrutiny and make sure these so-called commissions aren't using their power to abuse and harass fellow homeowners in an effort to force them from the community. 

Brenda Washington

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