Metro Council Member Sponsoring Land Use Change to Property Council Member Owns and Is Operating as Business in Residential Area

***An update, a clarification, and more of my thoughts on this***

I’d like to share some information about a Metro Council member who is sponsoring a very consequential community plan change (a step that could lead to zoning changes for years to come) that includes property she owns and has been running a business out of for several years.

(I apologize for any typos, errors, or formatting issues. I’ve thrown this together quickly to the best of my abilities. Click on a picture to view it in a larger format.)

First, I’d like to say that I don’t want to be writing this. I was on the Metro Council 2015-2019, and I lost re-election to this council member (CM), Courtney Johnston. I’ve tried to not be too openly critical of her even though I disagree with most of what she believes in and how she has voted on the big issues, but she is our CM and was elected by my neighbors instead of me. However, this is an issue that goes beyond how one votes on budgets or taxes.

This is Metro Council member who has been running a business in a residential area for years, getting inspected by Metro Codes numerous times, and appears to be using a loophole to keep using a residential home as the home office for her and her husband’s contracting business. Additionally, tonight is the first community meeting on a major community plan change that she is sponsoring that will have a long-lasting impact on the character of a neighborhood and one of the busiest intersections in all of Nashville, and property of hers is included in that community plan change. Let’s dive into the details, all of which can be found in many publicly available records, some of which can be found here.

In September 2019, CM Johnston won election to the Metro Council. A realtor who lives in Crieve Hall on the quiet side of a corner of a busy road through the area, CM Johnston and her husband, a contractor, also own .64 acres on Harding Place in South Nashville, a busy five-lane road that going east runs from Franklin Road, across I-65 to Nolensville Road, and continues after it crosses I-24. They bought the house in December 2017.

I’m not sure what it was used for before, but I had heard it was used for the contracting business. In January 2019, it was cited for improper “operation of a commercial business and /or the storage of commercial equipment,” open storage of junk (a refrigerator), and parking on the grass. It looks like the property cleared reinspection the next month. A Google Streetview photo from November 2019 can give you an idea of the junk on the property, and there is a box truck parked there.

After winning the election in September 2019, Metro Codes again citied the property, this time for four violations, including improper “operation of a commercial business and /or the storage of commercial equipment” saying “RUNNING BUSINESS FROM RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY NOT PERMITTED,” along with parking unregistered or inoperable cars, and open storage of junk and trash, commercial truck parking.

On October 1, there was a reinspection of the property. It cleared reinspection. Why? The day before, on September 30, CM Johnson and her husband received a “Building Use & Occupancy / Home Occupation, Single Family Residence” permit to use the property as a business. The permit allows them “to use a 100 sf portion of existing residence for an accessory home occupation activity construction company office use only” with “no outside storage allowed. no construction trucks or equipment allowed to be parked or stored on property. no commercial vehicles allowed to be parked or stored on property.” The Metro Codes site says this expires in March 2022.

So for 2.5 years, the property is permitted to run a business there. I don’t know if anyone actually lives there, but my guess is no. There is an approximately ten-foot tall fence around the parking of the house, with carports inside the fence, and numerous trucks have been seen parked there. This is noted by numerous code citations and six abatement notices from Metro Codes from March 2020 to January 2021 for “USE NOT PERMITTED” according to Metro Zoning and “COMMERCIAL TRUCK PARKING” with Metro Codes pleading to “PLEASE, PLEASE MOVE THE BOX TRUCKS. THEY ARE IN DIRECT WRITTEN VIOLATION OF THE HOME OCCUPATION PERMIT ON THE PROPERTY.“ This Metro Codes case was closed February 8, 2021.

The property was turned into Metro Codes again on March 29 by someone stating “owners do not actually reside at the residence and there are 3 box trucks and carport structures along with wall constructed around parking area. During the daytime the box trucks leave and are replaced by personnel vehicles of workers.” A Metro Codes inspection found no violation.

It was turned into Metro Codes again on April 30 by someone stating “Appears to be a plumbing business running from 2 adjoining residential properties. Fence has been been put up over last few months, but box trucks with what appear to be Plumbing business labels are in / out constantly.” A Metro Codes inspection found no violation.

Were trucks not parked there during these inspections, or was the property technically compliant under a sham building permit that allows an ACCESSORY (emphasis mine) home occupation activity construction company office? I emphasize accessory as a home occupation activity construction company office is not supposed to be the main and only use of the property, but that appears to be the case. The property’s main use is supposed to be as someone’s home.

Perhaps to help justify other commercial-type uses on the property, a building permit was issued in October 2019 for an addition onto the house, with the permit noting it is an investment property. The permit says the front porch is being renovated, replacing the rear deck, and that “No trades needed” with the owners acting as their own contractors. Since both building permits were issued almost two years ago, there have been no new inspections from Metro Codes on the additions. Today, if one drives by they can see what appears to be a large tractor-trailer on the property behind the fence. So under the color of law, the property is being used as a business, but it’s supposed to be an accessory use to its main residential use. It has been cited numerous times for too much and improper commercial use, and there are legitimate questions as to whether the property today is only a construction office and storage for CM Johnston’s and her husband’s contracting business in a residential area.

(UPDATE: I’ve been told that to get an accessory use permit, the owner of the property has to sign an affidavit stating the property is their primary residence. I of course don’t know for sure 100%, but it’s also been my impression CM Johnston and her husband do not live here and instead live in a home close to this property in Crieve Hall. Muni Code citation 17.16.250.D.6 )

Google Streetview from February 2021:

The next part of this is an application for a change to the community plan for an area around the Harding/Trousdale area. “Metro Nashville’s fourteen Community Plans are future planning documents adopted by the Metropolitan Planning Commission that describe the role each community plays in realizing the overall vision of the County – what residential, commercial, office, and open space each community will house for the County… Community Plans provide guidance and consistency for land use decisions over the long term.” When someone applies for a zoning change, planners look to the community plan to help guide them. If a proposed rezoning doesn’t match with the community plan for the property and the area, that significantly hurts its chances to get approved.

The current policy in the community plan for these properties is T3 Neighborhood Maintenance, which only allows residential zoning. The proposed change would move it to TR or Transition, which allows offices, residential, townhouses, detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs), daycares, mixed-use, and mid-rise buildings. The proposed community plan change is because a development company has bought a house at Trousdale and Lynn Drives and wants to rezone it from residential use to office/residential use “to allow for a of mix of uses along an active corridor.”

This would go against the community plan and would be spot zoning, so there is the proposed amendment to the community plan for that property and many others. There are good arguments on both sides of these proposed changes. Trousdale already has commercial uses along it that would match this and could bring in new neighborhood-friendly commercial businesses. On the other hand, this change is to a big area that already sees a lot of traffic, and it’d start to help get rid of residential homes in favor of commercial uses that wouldn’t necessarily benefit neighbors while bringing even more traffic.

However, there are two major issues. The first is the property referenced above that is owned by CM Johnston is included in the proposed community plan change.

A Metro Council member is sponsoring a community plan amendment to a property she owns. If approved, this change would increase the value of the property as it makes it easier to rezone the property in the future to allow commercial uses on a busy street, with some saying (and with documented proof) those commercial uses are already occurring. A realtor that is a Metro Council member should know that. No Metro Council member should be sponsoring a community plan change to property they own. It should be handed off to an at-large council member to handle it, which I know has been done in the past. Doing such removes any conflict of interest by the Metro Council member sponsoring it, which there clearly is here. This is a serious issue as a district council member has the most say over changes to community plans and rezonings. They can essentially kill any proposals in their district if they want to, and most Metro Council members defer to a district council member when they present zoning changes in the district council member’s district. This community plan amendment proposal should not be handled by CM Johnston.

Another issue is the larger community may not be aware of this change. Postcards have been sent to property owners around the affected area, although I’ve heard the notification process may not have been followed properly. To alert the wider community, to my knowledge nothing has been posted to CM Johnston’s social media about two virtual community meetings being held tonight, August 18, and on August 23. The Caldwell Abbay Hall Neighborhood Association is hosting the meeting tonight and is getting the word out about that meeting. I’ve only seen CM Johnston mention the August 23 meeting in comments on NextDoor posts about the proposed community plan change. Also, in her comments on NextDoor, I haven’t seen her disclose that she owns property in the proposed community plan change. This proposed community plan change will set the stage to change the character and traffic for the entrance into two neighborhoods (Crieve Hall and Caldwell Abbay Hall) and around one of the busiest intersections in Nashville. For such an important change with long-lasting repercussions, and as of now, there has not been enough communication about the community meetings.

I do not relish writing this. I know some will think this is sour grapes about losing an election to CM Johnston. For me, I’m sharing this because of serious concerns for my neighbors, the character of the neighborhoods I live in and used to represent, and because of the ethical issues I’ve presented. I don’t believe anyone can argue that these shouldn’t be addressed and addressed publicly.

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