By Ed Brock
The first public hearing on proposed changes to Jonesboro's zoning ordinance ended with raised voices and a city councilman being escorted out by police.
For over two hours the Jonesboro City Council fielded a variety of questions regarding the changes. They included the restrictions that would be placed on homeowners in the historic district to a provision for mandating retail development on Main Street.
Several members of the audience questioned the city's approach to increasing retail use on Main Street by requiring owners of buildings to use the first floor for retail use, not offices, if the property remains vacant for six months.
Attorney Monroe Ferguson said his wife and he had tried to operate several retail businesses, including a florist and an interior design firm, in downtown Jonesboro. All of them had failed, he said, along with numerous other retail stores and restaurants. Now he has his law firm's offices in the building at 106 S. Main Street and is worried that, if he dies, his widow or daughters may be limited in how they use the property.
"Downtown Jonesboro cannot support retail establishments. It just can't." said Ferguson. "If I decide to close my building for six months, it looks to me like I have the right to close for six months.
Bill Johnston, president of Strategic Planning Initiatives that helped form the zoning changes, said the plans for downtown Jonesboro were based on studies for the Livable Centers Initiative and had been successfully applied in other towns.
"You have to believe, I think," Johnston said.
Near the end of the meeting resident and Jonesboro Pride Civic Organization member Jon Crane began questioning Johnston about his comparison of Jonesboro to other towns that had implemented development strategies similar to that expressed in the new ordinance. Crane was questioning whether the approach would work in Jonesboro, and the
debate drew an impassioned response from Mayor Joy Day who said the city had to try something.
"I'm not going to quit because I want to keep living here," Day said. "If we quit we are dead in the water."
Other members of the council voiced similar opinions on the need to try something, and in a statement Councilman Clifford "Rip" Sewell mentioned a person who had supported LCI concepts but now was attacking the city council for its approach. After the council adjourned the meeting, over continuing arguments by Crane, former Jonesboro City
Councilman Luther Maddox approached Sewell and said he knew he was talking about him.
Maddox had voiced several complaints about the zoning plan earlier in the meeting.
"I was here long before you and I'll be here after your gone," Maddox said to Sewell.
The two continued to exchange heated words while Jonesboro police officers kept them separated. One officer accompanied Sewell as the councilman went to his vehicle.
Also during the meeting members of the audience took issue with restrictions placed on property owners who build new houses in the historic district or seek to make a physical addition to an existing home. New homes and additions would have to be roughly the same size as the homes around it, be painted in certain colors and new homes
would have to incorporate features found in historic homes already found in the city.
The city's Historic Preservation Committee would have to issue a certificate of appropriateness for new houses, though if the committee refused to issue a certificate the property owner could appeal to the council.
"It's not supposed to keep you from doing what you want with your property, it's to protect you from other people," Day said.
Emily Gaddis said she thinks the restrictions would take away from the character of the city and if Jonesboro insisted on such uniformity it would no longer be a community.
"It's just a plastic thing that looks like everybody else's plastic thing," Gaddis said.
Day again said the ordinance was designed to protect the people.
"You people would be the first ones to run to city hall and scream at us if we let somebody come and build something next to you that you didn't like," Day said.
Later she told Gaddis that she wasn't referring to her personally but to other people at the meeting.
Other changes to the ordinance would allow for high-density "cluster homes" in the city and would require businesses on Tara Boulevard to eventually add increased landscaping and move parking spaces to the side and rear of their businesses.
The council will consider the results of Monday's public hearing at its regular meeting next week and another public hearing will be scheduled, City Manager Jon Walker said, and it may be August at the earliest before the council would vote on the changes.