Highland, bye land?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 10, 2009

The three-year battle between Highland Avenue landowners and surrounding neighbors ended with the Troy City Council’s vote Tuesday.

It was a vote that sealed the approval for a request by landowners of the first block of Highland that will transform the road from R-1 single-family living to an R-3 high-density neighborhood.

And, it was a vote that many residents of the district fought hard to change.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“I think that they took the easy way out,” said John Jinright, a resident of Sherwood Avenue who has been a key voice in opposition of the landowners’ request.

While Jinright’s property doesn’t back directly up to the Highland Avenue land, he said it’s a decision that won’t mean good news for his neighborhood.

“I see that any attack on our neighborhood, regardless of if its on my street or not, that’s our neighborhood,” Jinright said. “Something that changes on Highland affects our neighborhood.”

Lamar Spivey, a resident of Lee Avenue, said he fought against the proposition not just on behalf of his own home but that of First Presbyterian Church and Covenant Christian School.

“I’ve been real involved with all those school children and teachers and live on Lee Avenue close to where the fraternity houses used to be,” Spivey said. “If they build apartments over there, it’s going to be the same thing — throwing beer bottles and cans.”

Spivey, a former city employee himself, said the decision was one that saddened him. “I was saddened they approved that because I worked for the city and with the zoning department,” Spivey said.

And poor zoning enforcement, is what these residents said they believed was really behind the decisions for change.

“It had to do with the specifics of the zoning ordinance and the city failing to enforce its own laws,” said Peter Howard, a resident of University Avenue. “And, when they don’t do that, the public loses faith in them, and I’m afraid that’s what has happened.”

Others, who have stood in opposition at countless public hearings, Planning Commission Meetings and ultimately the Troy City Council, said in the end, it feels their voice didn’t matter much.

“No I don’t (think we were represented well),” Spivey said. “We were highly opposed to it before the Planning Commission, but it didn’t do any good because it was approved by them unanimously. And, with the Planning Commission’s vote, I felt like it was already cut and dry before (the council) ever came to the meeting last night.”

“It’s sad to see not what has happened but how it’s happened,” Howard said. “It was never about students. It was about the integrity of upholding the laws and the sense of community we all need to have.”

Residents in opposition allege that for years many Highland landowners have not upheld zoning laws, allowing several students to live in one single-family home. And, if the city enforced it, they said, the move to R-3 wouldn’t have been such a natural “transition.”

“The easy way out is to simply say it should have been zoned that way to begin with because for years it’s been acting like R-2,” Jinright said. “Ten years ago they should have been enforcing zoning code because there’d still be single-family living in that street.”

Troy Mayor Jimmy Lunsford admitted that there are likely zoning violations in the city, though he didn’t say specifically in the area.

“There are violators, and we know there are violators,” Lunsford said.

But, knowing isn’t the only solution.

“There are people that see and know in their minds there is drug activity in a certain house, but there’s nothing the city can do until we can get someone in undercover to make a buy and prove it,” Lunsford said.

The story’s the same for those in violation of zoning areas. It’s a “burden of proof,” Lunsford said.

“Until you can get proof that they are there, we have problems getting it into court,” Lunsford said. “It’s frustrating to the people complaining. (And) it’s frustrating to me.”

Lunsford, along with other council members, discussed hiring an additional employee dedicated solely to enforcing zoning ordinances within the city.

“We’re going to make a concentrated effort to come up with a system to create this enforcement,” Lunsford said.

Councilman Charles Meeks, who represents Highland Avenue, said before he seconded the final vote that enforcing zoning codes was a stipulation to giving his OK.

But, residents who purchased homes near Highland Avenue, said they did so in the “good faith” zoning would remain single family.

Jinright said what he foresees happening is his neighborhood turning into Elm Street.

“I actually grew up on Elm Street, so I know what happens when you build a bunch of apartments in a single-family neighborhood,” Jinright said. “I wonder why College Street was able to save all of theirs and Elm Street was being torn down?”

But, just because zoning hasn’t changed in the College Street area, doesn’t mean those residents haven’t been keeping a close watch.

“We’ve been closely following what’s happened on Highland,” said Ed Telfair, vice president of the historic district on College Street. “It could easily happen over here. That’s the one cause that we’ve really been working to be organized against happening.”

Telfair said he’s not convinced zoning would change in the span of the society’s neighborhood — Walnut, Murphree Pine, China and College Streets. But, the committee is committed to enforcing and maintaining the zoning in the area.

“We’re working closely with Johnny Witherington and Jimmy Lunsford, and both said they support what we’re trying to accomplish,” Telfair said. “So, what we’re trying to ensure is something doesn’t slip through the radar.”

While one group works to prevent rezoning, another who has battled for years, stands defeated.

“A lot of people say ‘It’s natural. It’s coming because the university is growing and people want safe places to be,’” Jinright said. “In order to have a good relationship we have to set strong boundaries and define students clearly.”