City Councilman Russ Stephenson recently met with his neighbors as he mulls a plan to rezone his own property near Cameron Village.
The move would put Stephenson in an unusual spot; as a council member, he has supported higher-density redevelopment in the fast-growing neighborhood. But as a homeowner, he wants to protect his family’s historic property from future development.
Situated on a 1.2-acre lot on Oberlin Road, Stephenson’s home has been in his family for generations. It’s currently zoned for office and institutional use – something Stephenson doesn’t want on the land.
“What I want to do is preserve and protect the historic character of my property without impacting (neighbors’) property entitlements,” he said.
On Aug. 16, Stephenson invited adjacent property owners to the Cameron Village Public Library to talk about the proposal. But when others from the surrounding neighborhoods showed up, the councilman asked them to leave.
Seth Hollar said Stephenson wouldn’t allow him to attend but offered to answer questions later via email. “Given the fact that a city councilor is interested in downzoning in an area that would benefit from more urban development, I really just wanted to know more information,” Hollar said.
Hollar, who lives a few blocks north of Stephenson, said he doesn’t think the rezoning is a good idea. “My gut instinct is I don’t think it’s appropriate given that particular location,” he said. “My sense is that he’s personally motivated in preserving his family property and reducing his tax burden.”
Hollar and Stephenson have clashed before. Last year, Hollar filed a complaint with the city manager saying that the councilman “bullied” him during an informal chat over beers at the Player’s Retreat bar, repeatedly asking Hollar to explain his critical comments at a public hearing and questioning his qualifications to serve as a Citizens Advisory Council chairman. Hollar refused to answer the questions and left; Stephenson then followed him out of the bar, according to the complaint.
Stephenson responded that he’d simply wanted answers as a fellow member of the Wade CAC; he later told Hollar in an email that was he was “sorry you were uncomfortable with the questions.” Stephenson later endorsed Hollar’s opponents, and Hollar accused the councilman of inappropriate involvement in neighborhood affairs.
Despite Hollar’s concerns, Stephenson said most neighbors responded positively to his rezoning plan. Jay Dawkins owns a rental home on Maiden Lane and attended the property owners’ meeting. The primary issue was ensuring that any change to the councilman’s zoning doesn’t hinder development on other lots.
The neighbors, Dawkins said, “wouldn’t want to have any increased setbacks, buffers or limited ability to create something there. ... Russ was absolutely all ears to that.”
Stephenson says he’s not yet sure what zoning designation he’ll seek; he’ll seek advice from city planners first before meeting again with neighbors and filing the application. City planners – who recently got strong criticism from Stephenson on a separate development issue – will issue recommendations, including whether the change fits the city’s future land-use map.
That map classifies Stephenson’s home as “office and residential mixed use,” a designation applied to lots “where low density residential uses are no longer appropriate.” The plan suggests those lots get designated as office/institutional.
The councilman says the process could take time. “I’m not in a big rush,” he said.