Gap struggles with variance issue

It looks as though Cumberland Gap town officials are neatly caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA) struggled last week with a request by fellow member John Ravnum to grant a temporary zoning variance that would allow him to rent the back of the Artists’ Cooperative building as an office or a residential apartment.

The town struggles daily to keep its financial barometer in the black. Any way in which officials could generate additional revenue via new business appears to always be welcomed by town officials.

However, the BMA seemed to wrestle with the variance question, due to fears that granting the variance would open the door to many more requests by other business owners to do the same.

Ravnum said he received a letter of intent from a businessman who wants to officially open his enterprise in June of 2016. The owner would spend the intervening year manufacturing inventory and building sources, gathering franchising information, creating a marketing website and building working capital, he said.

“There have been comments that this would destroy all of our ordinances. But, would it,” said Ravnum.

Town attorney James Estep III said in the legal sense, it would not.

“The reality is, once you give a variance for an ordinance, it’s sort of expected for everybody else who requests the same thing,” said Estep.

Ravnum said the temporary variance would be just for the one year.

Alderman Jerry Hopson questioned granting a variance that would allow a residence in a commercial building. Hopson said he discovered while researching statutes one area in which a residence might be legally established inside a commercially zoned area.

The large merchants’ buildings located in the historical district could be used if there are clear, horizontal divisions between the residence and the business, he said.

“The zoning at street level is for public uses like stores or banks, and the upper zone is designed for private space such as offices or apartments,” said Hopson.

The purpose of a variance, he said, is to modify the application of the street level.

Hopson pointed to past instances in which the town found it necessary to turn down prospective business development due to current zoning issues.

Ravnum said the town has granted special variances in the past.

“Green Construction is one. They built their apartments on another block that had not had any structures on it, at all. And, they tore down a four-unit and put up 11 units, and one of those units is sitting on a piece of property that was never used,” said Ravnum.

Mayor Bill McGaffee reminded Ravnum that particular site is not within the historical district.

John Adams, a former Gap alderman who was present in the audience, questioned the “strictness” of the town rulings.

“I didn’t feel like we’re a big enough town to be so strict that we would cause people financial problems,” said Adams.

McGaffee said he will enforce the ordinances until they are changed.

“There’s a lot of vacant property here. Something needs to be done. But, if you want to make it easier, change these ordinances,” said McGaffee.

After a bit more discussion, alderperson Susan Bain made a motion to grant a one-year variance with alderperson Teresa Fuson seconding the motion. However, the motion failed by a vote of three to two with alderman Phillip Waller casting the deciding no vote.

Waller did say he would like to grant the variance but felt it necessary to abide by the current zoning ordinances.

A positive outcome of the vote seems to be the decision by the BMA to hold a special zoning meeting to review the ordinances. The meeting was scheduled to occur on June 8.

Reach Jan Runions at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @scribeCP.

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