published Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Chattanooga's Hilltop Neighborhood votes against duplex

It's time to banish duplexes to the dustbin of history, Hilltop Neighborhood homeowners argued on Monday.

More than two dozen neighbors, along with City Councilwoman Carol Berz, successfully fought an effort by Energy Way Corp. to win an exception to the community's single-family zoning at a meeting of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission.

The vote against the duplex was unanimous.

"This is a neighborhood who worked long and hard to become what they are, and that's lots of single-family dwellings," Berz said.

To hear neighbors tell it, the duplex experiment nearly destroyed their community, and they've just now clawed their way back from the precipice. Homebuyers won't purchase homes in a neighborhood with duplexes, especially those with absentee corporate owners who don't maintain the property, said homeowner Bob Mitchell.

"We're past the duplex era; please don't push us back into a hole," he said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, city planners thought it was a good idea to build multifamily homes in established neighborhoods, Mitchell said. The influx of affordable housing for two or more families would revitalize aging communities and bring new blood into Chattanooga for businesses hungry for cheap labor, they thought.

But the duplex craze didn't last long.

Crime moved into the neighborhoods along with the low-rent tenants, spreading drugs and violence into family neighborhoods, neighbors say.

In 1989, planners reversed themselves. Officials rezoned the entire Hilltop Neighborhood back to single-family R-1 zoning, and duplexes that stayed vacant for 100 days had to be converted to single-family homes.

Unfortunately, Energy Way Corp. wasn't aware of the neighborhood's history when the company bought the last duplex standing in the Hilltop core.

"This was news to us," said Peter Johnson, an attorney for Scenic City Legal Group, which represents Energy Way Corp.

Johnson argued that as property owners and now members of the neighborhood, Energy Way Crop. has the right to keep using the duplex as it was intended.

"If they cannot use this property at its current use, there's nothing keeping this home from being the next gang house," he said. "This type of permit is not just for the property owners around it, [Energy Way Corp. has] just as much right to use this property as everyone else has."

Energy Way Corp. is listed with the Georgia secretary of state as being operated by Steve Steele and Sherry Huff, longtime associates of payday lender Carey Vaughn Brown.

Though Brown attended Monday's meeting, the Chattanooga entrepreneur did not speak.

Like many of Brown's companies such as Terenine and Area203, Energy Way Corp. was incorporated in Nevada through Silver Shield Services, a company that has claimed on its website to offer "protection from lawsuits, government creditors and state taxes through Nevada's incorporation-friendly laws."

That type of property owner rubs Robert Manor, head of the Hilltop Neighborhood Association, the wrong way.

"On the surface, it seems like somebody is just trying to revert this to R-3, but when we found out the money trail behind it, we found out wow, we really don't want that," Manor said. "They've got no vested interest in our community other than making a quick buck."

The attempt by Energy Way to re-establish the rental property in the Hilltop Neighborhood may have come at the worst possible time, said Berz, because the Chattanooga City Council is preparing to place a moratorium on new exceptions to R-1 zoning, she said.

"Obviously, there is no doubt in my mind that this should be turned down," she said.

Energy Way owner Carey Brown said later that the company already had installed a 30-year architectural roof in the 2,700-square-foot building and said he would maintain the area's standards.

"I'm sure that the neighbors will be pleased when we are finished," Brown said.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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