ONARCHITECTURE- Zoning snafu: Will error in Woolen Mills scrap PUD?

When developer and scrap yard owner Preston Coiner proposed a planned use development  (PUD) on his property behind the Mary Williams Senior Center at 1512 E. Market Street last year, not only did it stir up the feisty Woolen Mills neighbors, it may have exposed a major oversight by city planners.

In 1993, City Council added several historic properties to its Individually Protected Property list (IPP), including the Timberlake-Branham house that's now being used as an adult day care center. In addition, the property around the house also fell under protected status. At the time, the property was already on the State and National Historic registers, and as the historic survey that Council reviewed in 1993 states, the circa 1886 structure, surrounded by "7.75 acres of farmland," was an important part of the historical and architectural fabric of the City.  

After land was divided into five-acre parcels along Woolen Mill Road in the 1880s, large Victorian houses were built along the road with gardens and pastures behind them. The survey suggests that the house and its large tract of land were what established its historic significance, reflecting as they did the original character of the neighborhood. "The loss of such a dominant presence would have a serious effect on the entire Woolen Mills area," the survey states.

Coiner's proposal for a PUD– a cluster of twelve to thirteen 1,200- to 1,500-square-foot houses– prompted several Woolen Mills residents to look into the history of the property, which Coiner bought in 1996 for $422,000. Later he purchased the adjoining property on Franklin Street where John and Helen's Grocery used to be. He then proceeded to develop the existing Senior Center on the site, subdivided the parcels, and proposed building the Woolen Mill Self Storage facility along Franklin Street, which was approved unanimously by the Planning Commission in 2001.

However, as Woolen Mills residents discovered, it appears that the entire original seven-acre parcel with the house had been designated an IPP in 1993. According to the zoning code, subdividing the land is not supposed to alter the original designation. 

In July 2006, lawyer Erik Wilke, representing several Woolen Mills residents, wrote a letter to city attorney Craig Brown summarizing this information and asking that the BAR review Coiner's application for the proposed PUD.  Wilke also made a FOIA request for all documents relating to the zoning of the property. 

In December 2006, Coiner– who happens to be a BAR member– filed an anonymous petition to remove the historic overlay from a small portion of the land, as he needed the required two-plus acres to build the PUD, and he believed that only a few acres around the house were protected by the IPP. (Coiner has since withdrawn the petition, and refused to comment for this story.)

According to e-mails Coiner wrote to City preservation planner Mary Joy Scala in January 2007, which were obtained in the FOIA request, Coiner filed the petition anonymously "so that no one on the BAR will know I have a financial interest in the property." However, Scala quickly reminded him that he couldn't "avoid letting the BAR know you have a financial interest," but said she understood why he wanted to "keep a low profile on this one."

At the time, Scala understood the entire seven-acre parcel to be an IPP, and wondered how the Woolen Mills Self-Storage facility had been built without BAR review. Indeed, nowhere is the property's IPP status mentioned in the minutes of the Planning Commission meeting when the proposal for the self-storage facility was approved in 2001. When the Hook asked Scala how such an oversight could have occurred, she deftly ran for cover. 

"I didn't work here then," she said. "Maybe that's the answer."

After some research, Scala wrote Coiner back to say that Neighborhood Development chief Jim Tolbert had determined, based on the information at the time, that they "had to assume" the historic overlay covers the entire seven acres. A few days later, Scala reaffirmed that determination, saying that a look at the current tax map shows that the property is protected all the way back to the railroad tracks. 

Here's where things get confusing. Since those January 2007 e-mails, the City has reversed that determination, relying on an interpretation by Zoning Administrator Read Brodhead.

On February 23, 2007, Brodhead drafted a letter to Tolbert explaining that when parcel 56-40.4 (the Timberlake-Branham property) was subdivided in 2001, the City failed to add the three new parcels to the list of IPPs before they were officially added to the tax maps in 2001. The City also failed to update the tax maps, which were being converted from paper to digital at the time, Brodhead says. 

After the new 2003 Zoning Ordinance took effect, and since the new parcels were still not listed as IPPs, Brodhead reasoned, only parcel 56-40.4– now a third the size it was when it was designated an IPP in 1993– could legally be considered an IPP. 

Got that? Of course, the obvious question is, "Never mind the 2001 subdivisions. When City Council designated the property an IPP, weren't they referring to the entire seven-acre parcel?" After more exhaustive research, Scala says, she never found a  "definitive record of the actual square footage/acreage of the IPP designation" that City Council approved. 

"It's clearly debatable what City Council designated in 1993," she says. "I did find a plat recorded in 1989 that appeared to subdivide the parcel into smaller parcels. So at the time it was designated, parcel 40.4 may have been smaller than it appeared on the tax maps."

However, as late as December 2006, City tax maps (long after going digital, we assume) were still showing 40.4 as one parcel. But suddenly, on March 2007 maps, the seven acre parcel is shown divided, as three separate parcels. In addition, according to City assessment records, the site of the Timberlake-Branham House and the self-storage facility were only recently divided and taxed as separate parcels.  

Advancing her subdivisions theory, Scala also mentioned a note she found about the property in some Planning Commission minutes from 1989, which states, "Objections raised by owner (an owner before Coiner) due to an industrial park also being developed on the M-2 portion of this lot (apparently this project was approved, but never built). Did not want BAR reviewing the industrial development. Subdivision of site may solve this problem."

While the minutes suggest a subdivision was considered, they also show that the previous owner knew the entire property was historic and subject to BAR review, something Coiner, City Staff, and the Planning Commission appeared not to have known when the self-storage facility was approved in 2001, or when the PUD was proposed last year. 

"I think the neighbors are considering an appeal of [Brodhead's] decision," says Scala, "and that could still happen."

Indeed, on March 16, Wilke filed a petition with the Board of Zoning Appeals on behalf of some Woolen Mills residents to appeal his finding. 

"We don't think you can un-zone something by mistake," says Wilke. "It was an honest oversight by City staff. All we're asking is that the proper steps be followed. We think City Council meant to designate that entire property when they added it to the IPP list in 1993."

 "What's troubling about the history of the house is not only the fact that the BAR didn't weigh in on the original development of the property, namely, the Woolen Mills Self Storage," says resident Bill Emory, who is standing in as petitioner in the appeal, "but the City is now compounding that error in taking the position that a clerical error resulted in the rezoning of more than half of the property originally protected."

"Should we allow political expediency to alter legislation and say 'To hell with the process'?" asks resident Victoria Dunham, who supports the petition. "Does the legislation covering IPPs have any muscle if the parcels are allowed to be whittled down through lack of oversight and zoning errors?"

A date for the BZA appeal has not been set.

On this 2000 draft copy of the Woolen Mills Neighborhood Plan, which was part of the Comprehensive plan, the whole of parcel 56-40.4 is shown as historic.