HELEN - Citing the need for viability of existing structures, the Helen City Commission voted Tuesday to rezone Tuscany Villas, located at 26 Midway Street in the city's north end.
The vote contradicted the recommendation of denial by the City of Helen Planning and Design Review Board.
Cleveland attorney Chad Knott, representing First Citizens Bank of Georgia, presented the request to rezone from C-1 commercial to R-4 multi-family on behalf of the bank and its agent, Mike Underwood.
Almost half of the units in Tuscany Villas currently are bank-owned, the application for rezoning states.
"Properties zoned commercial but with primarily residential uses are difficult to sell because of the inability of purchasers to obtain financing," Knott said. "As such, many of the properties are currently sitting vacant. Without occupants, vacant properties can easily fall into disrepair, which create many risks, as well as potentially becoming an eyesore. Additionally, every vacant unit is a unit that could be occupied by its owner as a primary or secondary residence, or utilized as a rental property to increase the number of potential customers available to the shops and restaurants in the city of Helen."
Knott said the mortgage collapse makes it virtually impossible for those who might be interested in purchasing the units to obtain permanent financing. That creates a hardship for the owners because they have difficulty selling the units for residences under the commercial zoning, Knott asserted.
Noting many older families who bought large homes during the housing boom, Knott said those families now realize they are a lot of maintenance and are choosing to downsize, such as to condos and townhomes. He said developments like Tuscany Villas fit that downsizing, adding some people choose to buy one unit to occupy and a second for family visits. That second unit is rented out when not being used by family members.
Commissioners said the development is visually appealing and in an important section of the city.
"That's a nice-looking whatever it is," Commissioner Helen Wilkins said. "Nobody's ever there. It sits empty."
Knott said the owners of 17 of the 18 units in the complex were in favor of the R-4 rezoning.
"I think this would be good for the town, however I don't understand why the recommendation to the commission is to deny it," Wilkins said.
Citing sections of the municipal code, Helen Building and Zoning Administrator Patrick Couch pointed out that the property already is developed in such a manner that it would require variance from "effectively every setback, buffer, yard, and parking requirement."
"I certainly respect the board, and your comments here," Commissioner Jeff Ash said. "We can grant variances on these exceptions at the top."
Discussion ensued as to whether a hardship can be created because of restrictions of zoning, with the written recommendation for denial asserting it cannot.
"My feeling is very simply this: there is no change in the usage of the piece of property," Ash said. "You've got a building there and the units are going to remain unchanged. When we leave here today and change the zoning, nothing's changed about the place - no negative impact on us."
Couch disagreed that there will be no changes.
"What will have to happen is because these units have certificates of occupancy issued for hotel/motel use, they're going to have to be reinspected and have new CO's issued for each one of these individual units," Couch said.
Ash pointed out that the only person who spoke at the public hearing on the proposed rezoning was Knott speaking in favor.
"The fact of the matter is you have no objections except one," Ash said. "You notified all the property owners around the piece of property."
Wilkins said Helen needs viable housing in that area rather than vacant buildings.
"That end of town is picking up and we need these," Wilkins said.
Because of its location just off North Main Street between Betty's Country Store and downtown Helen, commissioners said it's imperative to see that development have the ability to succeed.
"If we don't stabilize that center section, we've done an injustice to the existing businesses around there - Betty's, the Peddler, The Meeting Place, The Christmas Shop, all the way into town," Ash said.
Ash made the motion to rezone the property and grant the required variances to make it R-4. His motion was quickly seconded by Commissioner Judy Holloway and passed with no opposition.