Did rookie Councilman make a $40,000 mistake?

Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 11:45pm

Barely a few months into his first term, rookie Green Hills Councilman Sean McGuire was faced with a difficult choice: He could keep his word to a constituent, who he says misled him about community support for his proposed development, or acquiesce to the will of a few noisy neighbors, who were opposing a project recommended by their own community plan.

Ultimately, McGuire sided with the neighbors, and elected to indefinitely defer a zoning change that had already passed two readings on Council and was supported by the Planning Commission.

According to e-mail records obtained by The City Paper, McGuire promised support for the zoning change on two separate occasions.

“I just made a mistake. I thought the support was there and I blew it,” said McGuire, who at 28 is Metro Council’s youngest member.

If nothing else, McGuire’s admission illustrates the foibles of a decades-old problem for developers, residents and elected officials who attempt to peaceably travel the path of development and rezoning in Nashville.

The zoning change in question was a Specific Plan development to bring eight cottage-style homes to Lombardy Avenue. The applicant was Steve Slone, a developer who lived on the Lombardy property with his wife.

Yet when rezoning legislation reached the brink of passing earlier this year, McGuire changed his mind and acquiesced to the concerns of vocal Lombardy Avenue neighbors, who have opposed Slone for more than two years.

“I’ve basically been screwed out of more than $40,000 because Councilman McGuire lied to my face,” Slone said.

In the beginning…

McGuire said he learned of the brewing zoning disagreement in 2007 when he was running unopposed for the vacant Green Hills-area Council seat. Before he was elected, McGuire was made aware by Lombardy area neighborhood association president Jean Dedman that residents opposed more density on the residential road.

Initially, Slone sought to put a 13-unit cottage-style development on the lot, which is 0.8 acres. Before he ever filed Specific Plan zoning, Slone knew neighbors would be wary of such density and proposed 10 units instead.

But the property was surrounded by multi-family developments on three sides, and apparently neighbors came to feel they had to draw a line in the sand to prevent the entire street from following suit.

In June of 2008, Slone told McGuire via e-mail that he would be filing an SP for eight units in an effort to meet the density concerns of Lombardy Neighbors.

“Well good, I’m glad you are leaning towards eight,” McGuire said in an e-mail to Slone. “That should hopefully provide some more yard for the houses and up the sale value. At this point, I feel like we’ve tried to gather the info from them. Like I told you, you are conforming to what they wanted and asked for, so, in my opinion, I have no other choice but to support it.”

At that point in the process, Slone went around to neighbors, at McGuire’s request, to earn support for his proposal. He spent the next several months working on designs and filed an SP for eight cottage-style units.

Slone returned to McGuire with signatures showing 2-to-1 support for his proposed development, although the signatures turned in by Slone remain a serious point of contention.

“I will support this SP,” McGuire told Slone in an e-mail dated Sept. 17, 2008. “You clearly abided by the wishes of the neighborhood. You are right in that you offered them an opportunity to give their input. While there may be some disagreement down the road as far as aesthetics are concerned (which there always is that disagreement), again I think in principle you have worked to design this according to the neighborhood’s wishes. You’re to be commended.”

Wrench in the spokes

In January of this year, the Planning Commission voted 7-2 to approve Slone’s eight-unit SP. But Dedman and the Lombardy Neighbors group remained adamantly opposed to the project.

“It was supposed to be the whole reason for having a Specific Plan development… to have developments that were in the character of the neighborhood,” Dedman said. “So we opposed it and then eventually he said he would reduce it to six units.”

Before Slone reduced his proposal to just six units, he worked with McGuire and the firm Roy Dale and Associates to alter the plan. Neighbors were concerned with issues like setback, and Slone made concessions so the three-story structures would stand 50 feet off the road.

Dedman said the average setback for the street is 65 feet, a contention Slone said isn’t true. Regardless, the final points of disagreement seemed to be 15 feet in setback and the difference between six units, which Slone proposed, and four units, for which the property was zoned.

Taking in the minute points of contention and the concessions made by the developer, for a second, and final time, McGuire offered his support for Slone’s revised plan.

“I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I am willing to support a zone change that would allow you to build six units,” McGuire said in an April 10, 2009 e-mail. “I also want the development to have at least a 40-foot setback… Again, this is the decision I have made and I am not going to change my mind.”

And for two readings on Council, McGuire stayed true to his word. Slone’s cottage-style development passed both readings, including the public hearing, and stood one vote away from becoming a reality.

For Slone, seeing the finish line come into focus was a major relief. He and his wife, Claire, purchased the property in 2002 for $225,000. In the ensuing seven years, the property value has reached $411,000 according to the 2009 property assessment.

Although Slone is a developer by trade — he owns the small-scale company New Day Development — the Lombardy Avenue project was a labor of love. The Slones even planned to move into one of the units with their newborn daughter.

“I thought I’d done everything the neighborhood had asked me to do in terms of reducing density and setback even more than what was asked,” Slone said.

‘They will have to accept it’

But Dedman and Lombardy Neighbors were still not sold on the proposal. Working diligently to drum up opposition, they presented a list of signatures of property owners showing 2-to-1 opposition to Slone’s proposal.

McGuire said the contradicting signature lists played a key role in his decision to defer the zoning legislation. According to McGuire, it was obvious that Slone misrepresented support for his project when he turned in the first list of supporters.

When McGuire reviewed the signature list provided by opposition, he saw names previously on Slone’s list of supporters. McGuire also realized many of Slone’s supporters from the list turned in months earlier were actually renters in nearby complexes.

It was at this point that McGuire made the decision to defer the SP zoning change indefinitely. This came despite the fact that he had promised in that same April e-mail to live with his decision to support the six units.

“This plan for six units will not make the neighborhood happy either, but I would tell them that this is also the decision I have made and they will have to accept it as well,” McGuire said.

With the zone change sitting on life support, McGuire acknowledges he was faced with the choice of keeping his word to Slone, who he believes misled him on support for the proposal, or abiding by the will of a neighborhood association worried that its street would be over-run with multi-family developments.

“I have too much money invested in this to just accept what Councilman McGuire has put me through,” Slone said, adding that he’s spent about $45,000 in planning department filing fees and design costs to date.

Slone’s property is surrounded on three sides by condominium developments and all the interested parties concede the land is a “transitional” lot.

“I think ultimately if I could go back and do it over again I would have tried harder to prevent him from filing for his SP application,” McGuire said. “The neighborhood didn’t want to meet with him so I was trying to be the go-between with him and this neighborhood.”

But Slone maintains, and e-mail records support his claim, that he tried to meet multiple times with the neighborhood. On more than one occasion Lombardy Neighbors held meetings to discuss the proposal without inviting Slone to attend.

At this point McGuire insists the proposal isn’t dead in the water, pointing out that he has deferred the legislation indefinitely instead of opting for a withdrawal. Slone has appropriate zoning to put a sub-divided, four-unit development on the lot, but he remains skeptical that would have any support.

“Even if I tried to subdivide it, they’d come up with a reason to oppose it,” Slone said. “It’s like Jean Dedman is the Council member and not McGuire.”

Dedman, for her part, seemed somewhat open to the possibility of a four-unit development. Asked what she thought the neighborhood association would ever support, Dedman said, “No change in zoning. Whatever they can do with the existing zoning.”

For Slone, he said such assurances carry little weight.


15 Comments on this post:

By: idgaf on 8/28/09 at 1:19

First of all I am wondering why this story is even here.

That said It appears that Sloan has made numerious consessions to people who will not accept any and the councilman repeatedly gave his word and broke it at the last moment which is not honorable.

I see this as a property rights issue where the neighborhood wants to draw a line in the sand on property they have no right to and keeps uping the ante when he does try to placate them.

They should be happy that Sloans development will in essance be a line in the sand seperateing their property from the condos to stop their incursion.

By: govskeptic on 8/28/09 at 6:33

I'm sure these stories are available in virtually every district of the county. First, the councilman is new, but these type promises shouldn't be made to anyone prior to being elected, although I'm sure there are many(Mayor on MCC). Nashville's desire for infill is going to create many more of these type situations piting neighbors against developers. Planning Dept and council will probably resolve this with new zoning bills ensuring neighbors lose.
Many-many tax dollars are required through added property assements and development along with next year's tax increase to pay for all this. Hold onto your purses/jobs it certainly going to be a ride.

By: trtay2004 on 8/28/09 at 7:01

When a person purchases a property, they know the zoning for it. To assume you can change it as you desire by convincing one councilman is absurd. The guys property went up $186K. Be content you've made as much as you have and let the neighborhood maintain their value by enforcing the zoning.

By: JohnR on 8/28/09 at 7:51

The way I read the story I don't think the Councilman did anything wrong. His promise was based on the truthfulness of the developer. It appears that the developer cooked the books on the neighbors approval.

I would think that any promise is based on all the paries acting in good faith and being honest and above board.

I think the Councilman did the right thing all things considered.

By: tntitansfan on 8/28/09 at 7:52

Am I missing something? Seems like a shady developer tried to put one over on a councilman but the councilman and neighborhood figured it out before it was too late. Isn't that what we want the councilman to do? Or would we rather him "keep his word' after he catches the developer lying?

I'm a constituent of Sean's and he has been super responsive to us and helped me and my wife with a public works issue recently. I think siding with the neighborhood against a dishonest developer is exactly why he got elected in the first place. Don't know about you guys but that's what I want my councilman to do. Not his fault the guy was shady.

By: SamBGoode on 8/28/09 at 8:12

Good for the kid for standing up to a dishonest developer. My favorite part was where the clown said he couldn't tell if the neighborhood lady was the councilman or the guy was. Exactly. That's the idea. The last thing Green Hills needs is more developement and more traffic! Hillsboro Road anyone?

By: BlueInTn on 8/28/09 at 8:31

How did CM McGuire make a $40,000 mistake? The developer lied and CM McGuire caught on to it.

I expect better reporting from Nate. Very disappointed.

By: tenn40 on 8/28/09 at 8:39

I live on Lombardy Avenue and was intimately involved in most of the meetings that took place regarding this development. Many details have been left out of this story as one might expect of an endeavor that has taken place over many years. The Lombardy Neighborhood Association agreed to support a cottage style development but changed its mind when the proposed development came out on paper. The actual proposal was different than what we had agreed to support. We have a lot invested in our property. We have traffic and other issues in this neighborhood and do not want to see any further increase in density in development. We understand that Mr. Sloan has the right to develop his property. We, as an association of neighbors, supported Mr. Sloan's right to develop his property in keeping with existing codes and in keeping within the character of the neighborhood. In the end we felt that Mr. Sloan was not doing this and that is why we ultimately opposed his development. Mr. McGuire spent many hard hours working with all involved in this process and is to be commended.

By: usaf1942 on 8/28/09 at 9:59

Mr. Sloane continues to misstate the course of events, as he has done all along. Mr. McGuire did not make any mistakes, other than initially believing the incorrect information Sloane was peddling. If Mr. Sloane thinks he's going to get what he wants by assailing Mr. McGuire's reputation in the media, I'm afraid it won't work. I strongly applaud Mr. McGuire's actions once he realized he had been misled: he honored the wishes of the majority of his constituents, and that's how it should work. He spent a ton of time on this and I for one appreciate him weighing all the issues fairly.

It is by no means a "few noisy neighbors" that oppose this development and, seriously, do all the interested parties really concede that this is a "transitional property?" I'm an interested party, and I don't agree at all. If Sloane had gotten his way, would the house next door to his development then become "transitional" too? If you follow that logic, then the entirety of Lombardy - not to mention Green Hills itself - is "transitional."

The fact is, folks, Green Hills is far too dense already and we only have one main artery to accommodate the related traffic. Those of us who live along Lombardy - including those of us in condominiums - do not want our neighborhood taken over by any more multi-family homes. We have enough as it is. Personally, I wish Mr. Sloane would just leave this already-lovely home as it is - it's attractive and has a beautiful lawn that anyone would love to own - especially as it has greatly appreciated in value!

By: 2007 Lombardy Owner on 8/28/09 at 11:38

Steve Slone

By: 2007 Lombardy Owner on 8/28/09 at 11:38

Steve Slone

By: 2007 Lombardy Owner on 8/28/09 at 11:48

I am the owner and developer of 2007 Lombardy and there were some very key parts left out of the story. I did not cook the books or lie or misled McGuire in any way.

Let's review the facts that I can document:
1. McGuire requested a final list of support from me and a FINAL list of opposition to be turned into him the second week of Feb. 2009. I complied.
2. I highlighted the known renters in red and told McGuire that I could not be completely sure if there were more. He told me that was ok because he would be verifying support and opposition by emailing, phone calls and knocking on doors. He said that he needed a final count from both sides to give him time to verify both sides before reaching a decision.
3. On March 17th McGuire emailed me to indicate that he "had gotten in touch with 40 of my supporters and they are all in support. Thank you for your continued patience". In addition you stated that you are "just counting 40 of the people I have contacted right now. I do have all of the people that have emailed me in support, but have not tabulated those yet". It is now obvious that McGuire did not attempt to verify support or opposition until August although he misled me by telling me he had completed this months earlier when he vowed his support on 2 different occasions. He even sat my living room with me, my wife and Roy Dale and told us he had completed his verification process and was satisfied with the support.
4. McGuire told me to not knock on any more doors so I didn't. He said this had to end sometime. However, the opposition, without my knowledge, was allowed to rally for 5 additional months and McGuuire accepted their revised count and documentation in August. It is no surprise that some people that were once in favor of my project changed their mind when the opposition had an additional 5 months to work. However, my original documentation I provided even listed the few people that I knew had changed their mind

Bottom line is that McGuire did not do his job here. How was he misled? How was I in any way dishonest? He promised support and even worked on the plans with me but didn't bother to verify anything until August. How is that my fault? He made mistakes but why should I pay for them? That is key. I did exactly what he asked of me. I have been honest and ethical throughout this process. However, the article leaves doubt about that. If you were in my shoes you be upset that you wasted all this money at the urging of your Councilman. All I ever wanted was a level playing field.

By: 2007 Lombardy Owner on 8/28/09 at 12:23

Steve Slone

By: frustrating on 8/28/09 at 1:11

I do not know Mr. Slone personally, but I feel for him. If you will recall this is almost the exact same thing that Mr. McGuire did to Easter Seals when they were trying to sell their property off of Graybar to be used as an upper-end, much needed preschool in the Green Hills area. Mr. McGuire also ran Easter Seals "in circles" and assured them if certain steps were followed and adjustments were made the rezoning would be passed for them as well. After months of trying to appease Mr. McGuire and the neighbors near the Easter Seals facility via a constantly "moving target" and thousands and thousands of dollars which were spent to address these ever changing requests, the rezoning was denied for Easter Seals as well. This all sounds way too familiar to me. Councilman McGuire should be held accountable for his actions and the reprecussions faced by the community and especially the patrons of Easter Seals.

By: govskeptic on 8/28/09 at 9:39

As I recall Easter Seals was using their desperate financial situation in an attempt to zone a building and
lot sized for about 50 daycare students to one for about 150-175. Sounded like the Councilman wouldn't rollover for that project as well.