Residents concerned over changes to Hertiage District

By MARLAN JONES,

A zoning hearing was held on Friday, December 22. A large crowd gathered to a variance request made by Jaron Priest for his building project in Mendenhall’s Heritage District. Priest is attempting to build three residential homes in the district.

The project has caused some controversy among other residents in the area. Most of the concerns were focused on the two additional properties becoming rental homes. The issued was brought before the board during their November meeting in which Patti Winningham and Cathy McCormick raised their concerns. Winningham said that the board should take a serious look at allowing rental properties in the heritage district. She said, “Once it’s compromised you can’t get it back.” Winningham said she had spoken with Priest and questioned if there was adequate space to facilitate three homes, but her main issue was the rental properties. She said, “I don’t want what I have diminished. We don’t need two blocks from the courthouse, a bunch of rentals.”

McCormick who is also the sister in-law of Alderman Donnie Thomas echoed many of the same complaints. She said her main worry was diminishing property value. Also during this meeting Mayor Todd Booth said that per his last conversation with Priest the plans were only for one house.

Twelve citizens attended the zoning hearing, many of which lived in the heritage district. Mendenhall’s zoning board consists of Rosemary Jones, Ruby Hooks, Pat Bynum, Geneva Williamson, Johnny White, and Larry Munn who serves as chairman.

At the start of the hearing Munn addressed the crowd and gave instructions on how the meeting would be conducted. He said Priest would speak first and explain his intentions and what he is seeking before answering questions. Priest explained that he was asking for a variance for the front of the houses. According to the building codes homes have to be at least 30 feet from the right away. Priest was requesting a variance of 18 feet since his current building plans would have the homes sit 12 feet from the right of way. He then explained that he does intend to build three homes. The middle home will be his, and the two additional houses will be for sale. He presented the board with site plans that addressed their concerns of the driveways distance from the sidewalk and the dimensions of the backyards.

Following his explanation the room was open for questions. Immediately Priest was asked about rentals. McCormick asked will these homes ever become rentals. Priest said, “They will be for sale. My intentions are to sale these homes and by my projections they should sale pretty quickly. I can’t promise that they won’t ever become rentals.”

Former Alderman Dale Feicke was among the crowd and asked Priest why does he need the variance. Feicke said Priest had adequate space to build the homes in compliance with the building codes. Priest responded that the dirt work for the homes was done and that he had received the setbacks from city officials. Priest said that he made setback measurements from the center of the road; because that’s the information he received. Munn said that the measurements were done incorrectly and should have been done from the start of the property line. Priest said instead of redoing the dirt work and spending additional money he decided to ask the board for a variance.

Priest expressed that their needs to be clarity for builders in the future. He said, “For future projects builders need a clear answer. We can’t get answers from five different people. We never got a clear answer until it was too late.”

McCormick commented that each home would only have a 12 feet front yard from the street. City building inspector David Miller clarified that the houses will be approximately 13 feet from the sidewalk, which is the end of the city’s right of way, not the street.

Johnny White asked Priest if he intended to build a fourth home to which he answered no. The previous land owner who sold Priest the property spoke on his behalf. She said, “I think he has done an excellent job cleaning the property up. I think we have a lot more problems here in Mendenhall then what he is trying to do.”

The board gave their assessments of the situation. Munn said, “A lot of people come in here and try to do rental properties. We are trying to keep slumlord rental properties from popping up in the city.” Munn admitted that those were his first thoughts of what Priest was trying to do.

Geneva Williamson said that she was afraid of what these little houses would mean to the heritage district. She said, “We need to look at things that will not affect the value of the property around it.”

Rosemary Jones questioned Priest on the amount of space for growth. She asked if that would be adequate enough space for him to raise a family, and suggested he build two larger homes instead of three. She also raised safety concerns for children, citing that the homes were close to the street.

Ruby Hooks said that the structures in the heritage district should stay compatible with the neighborhood standard.

Pat Bynum was the only board member to speak in favor of Priest’s project. She said, “It will be good for the city and the small southern homes will be good for the heritage district.” She expressed that not all of the houses in the heritage district had to be big structures. She said, “It looks in my mind to be complimentary to the area, and it means more families and taxes to Mendenhall. He has the space and meets the criteria.” She suggested that allowing the variance would be good for heritage district and be beneficial for the city economically. Bynum also suggested that rumors have slated the public opinion of Priest’s intentions and confirmed that he has never told the zoning board he intends to rent these houses.

Following the board’s discussion Munn called for a vote. Jones motioned to deny Priest’s request for a variance but did not receive a second. Pat Bynum motioned to allow the variance, but also did not receive a second.

Munn urged the board to make a decision. Johnny White asked Priest would he consider building two homes and Priest replied “no comment”. Jones motioned again to deny the request and was second by White. The motioned passed with a majority vote.

Following the denial Priest had two options. Munn explained that he could appeal the zoning board’s decision with the Board of Aldermen or redraw his site plan. Following the zoning hearing the Board of Aldermen held a recess meeting in which they approved the Zoning Board’s decision and tabled Priest’s appeal until the January 2 meeting.