After months of house-hunting, local nurse practitioner Andrea Stephens finally found the home she wanted to buy.

What she didn’t expect was spending another three months in limbo because the house, which is in a residential neighborhood, was “spot-zoned” C-1 commercial more than 50 years ago.

Knox County Surveyor Dick Vermillion, also a member of the Area Planning Commission, says the zoning issue Stephens encountered is not an isolated incident. Between the 1950s and early 1970s, the APC would take small segments of residential areas and re-zone those properties as commercial.

The C-1 zoning is intended for use by localized business districts, as opposed to C-2 and C-3, which cover central business districts, like Main Street and larger commercial operations. 

“At the time there were more mom-and-pop type businesses in different areas of town,” Vermillion said. “Back then there would be little corner stores and things like that in different neighborhoods. So areas like the one around Seventh and Seminary streets already had a little bit of commercial development nearby.” 

In the early 1970s, when the plan commission re-zoned such places from residential to commercial, Vermillion says they were planning for what they thought — and hoped — might be the development of some neighborhood businesses to serve nearby residents.

Though the zoning of these properties changed 50 years ago, it didn’t mean the property owners had to develop businesses or even sell to those lots to buyers interested in commercial use.

In fact, most did not.

The commercial growth the commission had hoped for didn’t take place. And it now poses a problem for potential homebuyers and sellers.

In the case of Stephens, she had no idea the house and land she wanted to purchase was zoned for commercial use until she tried to get a mortgage.

When land is zoned commercial, homebuyers cannot be granted a home mortgage because of Non-Conforming Use ordinances. This can also put sellers at a disadvantage, sometimes leaving properties on the market for months.

When asked why, 50 years later, dozens of these spot-zoned areas are still scattered around town, Vermillion says it’s important to understand the back story.

“In the 1960s the city had a planning commission, but the county did not,” he said. “When we moved to a county-wide planning commission in 1971, the city planning commission dissolved.

“So, anything the city commission zoned before 1971 has stayed that way,” he said. 

When a case similar to Stephens’s was brought before the commission and city council last year, APC executive director Colt Michaels said that despite being zoned commercial, the properties have been used as residences “for as long as anyone could remember.” 

What Vermillion and some others at the APC would like to see in these cases is more homeowner involvement. He says that if this is something residents would like to see changed in their neighborhood, “get all the other homeowners around you to come together and bring this forward.” 

As for Stephens, it looks like she will soon find herself in the house she’s wanted to own since first seeing it in April.

The APC and the city council last month approved her request for the zoning change she needed in order to find her way home.

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