A big part of the goal of the Sylvan Park Community Group (SPCG) organization is to build bridges between neighbors. We have witnessed a lot of vitriol both online and at other neighborhood association meetings over the past several years. Our preference is to engender thoughtful discourse and productive discussion in an attempt to have the best avenue with which to achieve productive change. It is our hope that SPCG’s efforts will inform the community and allow people to interact respectfully to help us continue to build a better neighborhood. We are convinced that Sylvan Park is the best neighborhood in the city.
As part of our efforts to promote thoughtful conversation about neighborhood topics, SPCG will be publishing occasional blog articles on its site presenting a balanced view of the issue at hand. Recently, the construction of four homes on Utah AVE by Richland Builders has sparked controversy in Sylvan Park. We have compiled the views of neighbors, builders and our councilperson as well as reviewed zoning ordinances related to this controversy. Below you will find these perspectives as you consider your own opinions on the matter.
VIEWPOINT: Richland Builders
What is Richland’s perspective on the pros and cons of a conservation and/or a contextual overlay?
Overlays are a crucial part of allowing areas of historical significance in a community to be upheld and protected, this is particularly true of our beautiful home of Nashville. However, when used incorrectly and approved in mass, around the city, these overlays can cause significant limitations to hinder necessary improvements throughout the community. As a developer, we absolutely support the city's initiatives to protect areas of historic interest without burdening the progress and ability to create new history moving forward.
Richland strongly aligns with the notion that individuals should not be burdened with government infringement on individual property rights. This is especially true when there is a significant negative implication to that property value and neighborhood.
Additional consequences include discounting the meaning of overlays and increasing barriers to the attractiveness of those areas of significance we wish to uphold.
I would like to start by saying that I am not a zoning expert, and that I hire professionals to help with my due diligence on all projects. With that being said, with the nature of my business I do have a strong understanding of the proposed overlays. These words are my opinion and my understanding. I would advise everyone reading this to not only take my word for it, but to do your own research and consult with professionals such as attorneys, civil engineers, and architects that deal professionally with the zoning department on a daily basis. These overlays greatly affect your investment. There are important distinctions between the two types of overlays and from Richland’s perspective we do not get involved with properties subject to either a conservation or a contextual overlay. The restrictions imposed by either of them are too burdensome versus the other opportunities we see in the Nashville market.
The full details and differences between a conservation overlay and a contextual overlay can be found on Metro Nashville’s website. Contextual Overlay / UDO can be found here, and Conservation Overlay information can be found here.
There are important distinctions between the two each property owner needs to know and evaluate. Each overlay sits on top of the base zoning for a particular area and are by their nature more restrictive than the base zoning district. Contextual overlays are the least restrictive between the two and restrict two primary areas of construction, home footprint and home height. Historic Overlays / Conservation Overlays are more restrictive than a Contextual Overlay and limit a property owner to needing approval for seemingly small modifications such as adding a porch to their property or modifying landscaping. I will not go into the full details of each here as anyone wanting to truly know can read for themselves. One protects the context (height of and footprint of a neighborhood or street) while the other protects the historic nature (height and footprint as well as exterior facade). If you are looking to protect the historic nature of an area, including many not well maintained properties lying within the proposed area, then this is for you. But now, when you add an overlay you limit the number of people willing to take on a project due to the overall complexity of and layers of approval needed just to begin construction. We believe some areas are truly historic in nature and needing protection, however, in my opinion the proposed area does not fit that description. Remember what you protect, and the restrictions you impose, you have to live with.
What are your thoughts on how an overlay would affect property values?
An overlay imposes numerous restrictions / requirements impacting property values, oftentimes negatively. Anytime an overlay is proposed, it is important for property owners to pay careful attention and understand the implications to the proposed overlay. Overlays have important implications for anyone who wants to make improvements to their home - maybe that’s a small renovation, maybe that’s adding a garage or expanding to add another bedroom for a new child. These sorts of improvements are often paid for by refinancing. When one refinances, an important step in that process is getting an appraisal. If the value of your home has gone up, you will have more opportunity to make improvements to your home than if your home’s value has stagnated or gone down. Our homes, and the homes of other builders have raised comps in the neighborhoods and helped current owners obtain financing for these types of projects.
Please don’t read this to say no developer would ever do anything in Sylvan Park if there was an overlay of any sort. Sylvan Park is, in my opinion, one of the best neighborhoods in the city and there will always be people wanting to build here. One of the primary reasons we chose to live in Sylvan Park is the quality of the neighborhood. We are not looking to alter the neighborhood feel. We are looking to bring more of a modern feel to the homes within the neighborhood for people wanting to live within the Sylvan Park community. Whenever we evaluate a proposed property the acquisition cost along with a projected sales price is a factor of our overall decision. With product type, height, and square footage being significantly limited due to the proposed overlays one of two things must happen for new development to occur.
The people who are strongly opposing development in the area are not developers or builders and do not understand this. Currently, property values and sales prices in the Nashville area are attractive for builders and developers looking to improve neighborhoods. Imposing an overlay will cap and / or limit development within an area. These are often short-sighted solutions to an underlying few vs. most of the property owners. By limiting your rights on your own property the foot you choose to shoot may be your own or your family’s.
What are your thoughts on how overlays would have impacted the design of the homes on Utah? Are there any adjustments that Richland plans to make to architectural designs on future builds in the neighborhood with respect to size/scale?
The homes on Utah would not have happened in the event there was an overlay. As I mentioned before, currently Richland Building Partners does not pursue projects subject to overlays.
However, I would be remiss not to note three things here. First, my family lives in a home that is a similar style to the ones on Utah. My wife and I happen to find the style to be extremely attractive. It’s our taste. Richland didn’t build the homes on Utah “just to make a buck”. We think they’re beautiful. Second, I have heard on more than one occasion that people at first did not like the homes Richland built on 46th Avenue overlooking the baseball fields but after they were done and landscaping installed, the immediate community warmed up to them. I feel judgement was passed too quickly on the homes on Utah. While they may not be everyone’s taste, we all probably have different taste when it comes to homes in the neighborhood and which ones we like better than others. Lastly, the one-story duplexes we are replacing on Utah were an eyesore for many. What’s replacing them are four high-quality, well-constructed homes providing benefits felt throughout neighborhoods, businesses and commerce, community groups and activities, and beyond.
Any other comments on zoning or other considerations in the neighborhood that Richland may be aware of as a developer that neighbors may be interested to know?
Overlays can happen due to the energy of a passionate minority. Please do not go along with something without first understanding the overall implications. Engage and understand what is happening around you. If this is something you have not engaged in to know and understand the implications of your decisions to impose an overlay will limit many of the changes you and your family may decide to make.
VIEWPOINT: Neighbor Adam Wakefield
Me and my wife moved into our house in Sylvan Park to start a family. We chose this neighborhood because of its charm and history. Not only have a lot of these houses been here for over 100 years, but a lot of the residents have been here for a long time as well. Anyone who lives in Sylvan Park (including builders) can recognize and appreciate the history/community here. The 4 new, very modern style, 3 story buildings crammed onto one lot on Utah are undeniably in direct contrast to the kind of neighborhood that surrounds them. Me and my wife live on the next block down from them on Utah; but they are so tall we can still see them towering over all the other houses from our bedroom window. I've talked to countless neighbors and ALL of them are outraged at the careless development (which is plain to see by the signs in everyone's yards). Builders might say that is "progress" and that they are increasing property value, but no one here thinks it's worth selling the soul of this wonderful neighborhood. Richland knew this would anger the neighbors but they did it anyway. They can't say they didn't know this would go against the wishes of the neighboring property owners. They consciously chose profit and expediency over community and the negative backlash is the direct result. There are always new builds going on in Sylvan Park (some more aesthetically appropriate than others) but none have been so callously heedless of the surrounding property owners as these ones.
VIEWPOINT: Neighbor Jenny Leigh
Before you digest a sob story about how Richland builders are just neighborhood folk trying to make a living, please know that the residents of Sylvan Park are not here to campaign against change or diversity. Sylvan Park is a historical neighborhood filled with charm and diversity. The monstrosities that Richland is building that tower over and shade the very homes that make this neighborhood special, are a direct and blatant disregard to the fabric of our community. Tearing down duplexes and heritage trees to double and quadruple the amount of units per lot is not progress. It’s predatory development. The only ones who benefit from these out-of-place skyscrapers are the employees of Richland builders.
VIEWPOINT: Kathleen Murphy
Councilwoman, District 24, Sylvan Park
How were these homes on Utah Ave approved?
The previous houses on these 2 lots were duplexes. Codes has sent me the NES records proving the utility use that they were duplexes in use. In the urban zoning overlay (UZO) which Sylvan Park is in, homes can be 3 stories up to 45 feet. I will ask codes to verify the height is within the limits once they are finished.
Why is utility use proving they were operating as duplexes important?
The Utah property and probably 99% of Sylvan Park is zoned RS7.5 meaning 1 single family home per 7,500 sq ft lot. It also requires 20 ft rear setbacks, 5 ft side setbacks and usually a contextual front setback matching the others on the block. Under state law ( Non-Conforming Property Act Tennessee Code Annotated Section 13-7-208), if a building/house was a duplex before the zoning changed to RS7.5 then it retains the right to operate as a duplex or redevelop as 2 separate or attached units unless it was not used as a duplex for 30 months. (Here is a blog post explaining more)
What is the Urban Zoning Overlay?
The UZO was created in 2000 and was designed to protect the character of portions of the city that were developed in the urban core prior to the 1950s. The primary differences between properties in the overlay relate to commercial or mixed-use zoning districts to reduce street setbacks to create more walkable neighborhoods with sidewalk storefronts.
What are some zoning options and tools if you aren’t happy with the development on your street/neighborhood?
Interested in an overlay, zone change or just want more information about Land Use policy in Sylvan Park?
Here are Kathleen Murphy’s suggestions:
Talk to your neighbors and see if others want to make changes. You can email or call Kathleen to let her know about the changes you would like to make. Kathleen will consider support for them on a block by block/street by street basis if there is neighbor and policy support which she gauges through community meetings and surveys.
The overlay expansion is currently scheduled to go before the Historic Zoning Commission on September 15, the Planning Commission on September 23rd, and the Metro Council on October 5th for public hearings.
VIEWPOINT: Metro Codes
We reached out to a Metro consultant who declined to comment on the record, however information about permits pulled for construction of these homes is publicly available online. Parcel Viewer, from the Nashville Planning Department, is a great resource for getting started if you want to learn more. Based on the Nashville Parcel Viewer posting for the homes at 4305 and 4303 Utah AVE you can see that:
As neighbors discuss this controversy, our organization, the Sylvan Park Community Group has heard from neighbors with views on all sides. We hope that publishing these perspectives will help inform discussions and actions moving forward.