Hunger First rezoning denied by Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen

Rick Wagner • Jun 16, 2020 at 10:00 PM

KINGSPORT — The quest of Michael Gillis to get rezoning to allow overnight stays by the homeless served by Hunger First has failed in a 0-7 vote by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Tuesday night.

Gillis, only one of two speakers Tuesday who indicated support for the rezoning of 1100 Oak St. from B-3 (highway oriented business) to R-3 (low-density apartment district), said he wanted to withdraw the request after it became clear the board would not approve the rezoning. However, the board followed the planning commission recommendation against the rezoning after City Attorney Mike Billingsley and Planning Manager Ken Weems said Gillis was neither the owner of the property nor the applicant for the rezoning.

“I am going to yield to the city, and I am going to withdraw my zoning application,” said Gillis, who heads up the not-for-profit Hunger First.

However, he said taking 37 homeless people to a city motel during the novel coronavirus pandemic still left people in and around Hunger First, which serves a homeless population Gillis estimated at more than 150 in Kingsport.

“I am not responsible for this,” Gillis said. “It’s going to take the city, including the entire Board of Mayor and Aldermen, and all these residents.”

He also said he understands neighborhood concerns but that nothing substantial has been done to help the homeless, and he started to “do something rather than nothing” about a year ago.

Hunger First was cited by the city in January for allowing folks to spend the night at the shelter during cold winter nights, although it avoided a fine. Neighbors and area residents told the board of issues, including people defecating in their yards and “turning tricks” in a homeowner’s garage.

Alderman James Phillips said he was offended Gillis left after speaking but before the board voted, pointing out that the city has formed a homeless coalition, hired a homeless liaison and hired a social worker in the police department to help the homeless.

“You have a group that doesn’t want to participate in helping,” Phillips said.

Later in the meeting, the board voted 7-0 to approve more than $249,000 in federal COVID-19 help funds earmarked for low- and middle-income folks, including the homeless, to be used through the Second Harvest Food Bank and the Salvation Army.

Mayor Pat Shull said the question at hand was the rezoning, which city officials said was a “spot” rezoning that would have to have a parking requirement waived, while many comments went beyond the rezoning to discuss issues with the existing Hunger First operations and the effect on the neighborhood near Center Street.

“That place up there has become an eyesore. I don’t know if they mean it like that,” Alderman Tommy Olterman said.

He and folks who live nearby complained of empty houses where he said people are “doing everything in there.”

Rhonda Dingus said a neighbor told here someone was “turning tricks” in her garage during her night shift work.

“They use our backyard as bathrooms,” Dingus said.

She also reported witnessing drug deals, trespassing, theft and buildings set on fire. She said people Hunger First serves need help but somewhere else and in another form than the proposed dormitory operation.

Jackie Wilson, Brenda Waterson, Richard Brown and Bradley Williams also spoke in opposition to the rezoning, with Brown calling the area in and around Hunger First an “ongoing infestation” surrounded by decaying buildings. City Manager Chris McCartt said the city is working with owners, some new, of the affected properties and seeking demolition of some of them.

Joe Carr spoke in favor of rezoning.

“There are unmet needs in the city, but I don’t think that’s the path to use,” Alderwoman Jennifer Adler said.

In other action, the board approved the 2020-21 budgets with no property tax increase, no new taxes and no new bonded indebtedness. It had some minor changes in other fees, including cleaning at the Farmers Market and curbside pickup.

The board also approved an owner-requested annexation of property off Rock Springs Road in Sullivan County. That will pay for itself and will allow the residents to send their children to city schools without paying tuition, city officials said.

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