Belle Meade adopts new home guidelines

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Dylan Aycock
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Belle Meade residents who wish to make some exterior changes to their homes are subject to new rules following the creation of a citywide neighborhood conservation overlay adopted Dec. 18 by the Board of Commissioners.

A set of interim residential design guidelines approved for the overlay require the Historic Zoning Commission—a five-member board formed by the commissioners in August—to review proposed demolitions, new construction and, in some cases, additions to existing properties within the city.

The commission’s move to approve design guidelines follows four months of planning and research spurred by increased residential tear-downs and subsequent new construction, which Lyle Patterson, director of building and zoning and assistant city manager, and HZC officials have deemed inconsistent with traditional architectural styles found in Belle Meade.

“The reason why [the guidelines] were created in the first place was to combat the influx of these cookie-cutter homes coming into Belle Meade,” Patterson said.

According to the guidelines, all new construction will go before the HZC to ensure new homes are compatible with traditional architectural styles found in Belle Meade, such as Colonial, Georgian and Tudor revivals. Contemporary homes are also permitted if they meet certain requirements on massing, materials, scale and proportions.


“We have investors coming into Belle Meade that are not building someone’s legacy home,” Patterson said. “They are building homes to make money and flip as quick as they can.”

The guidelines

Under the guidelines, the HZC has the authority to review design plans for any demolition, new construction or addition to existing properties in the city. The group reviews each property based on three residential classifications: properties of significance, properties worthy of conservation and properties built within the last 50 years.

The first two categories include homes built before and after 1939, and, in most cases, an addition is allowed if it is “appropriately scaled” for the property. In both categories, the guidelines discourage demolitions unless homes meet certain criteria, such as being a life hazard to residents.

Properties built within the last 50 years will not require HZC review unless the work has the potential to affect nearby properties of significance, according to the guidelines.

However, the guidelines do grant the director of building and zoning the authority to approve some types of projects without review by the HZC.

In these cases, additions and demolitions of homes less than 50 years of age and structures considered to be life-safety hazards can be approved by the director. All requests for demolitions and new construction are automatically sent to the HZC for review, according to the guidelines.

“It’s only when there’s a departure from the original structure that something like an addition would have to go to the HZC,” Patterson said.

The interim guidelines will be in place for nine to 12 months, at which point officials expect the city to receive a state grant to move forward with establishing permanent guidelines, according to Patterson.

“I agree this is not the perfect document, but it is a very strong beginning,” Patterson said. “It’s going to take some time and effort, but we’ve got some time to work on [the guidelines].”

Residents’ concerns

The interim design guidelines, which have been met with support and opposition by residents, were developed by HZC members with the assistance of Phil Thomason, a preservation planner, over seven meetings since Sept. 19.

HZC member Gavin Duke said at the Dec. 18 meeting he is disappointed in the “limited public input” received on the guidelines. City officials said they notified residents who are signed up for the city’s monthly newsletter service by both mail and email.

“I understand and appreciate the concerns of residents, but I think this is a pretty good attempt at putting in an overlay,” Patterson said. “The big word on the front of these guidelines is ‘interim.’”

Some residents at the meeting were critical of the city for establishing the guidelines in what they considered to be too quick of a time frame, while others expressed concern the new rules might discourage people from buying properties in the city.

“We’re doing something that will affect people in 30 years, and my nostalgia is not worth bringing down the options and the property rights of people that don’t share my views,” Belle Meade resident Sue Rankin said during the public hearing.

HZC member Ron Farris told members of the public he shares some of their concerns and is on the commission—composed of one building architect, one landscape architect, one lawyer and two residents—to encourage members “to be very careful” of how oversight is given to projects.

“As a citizen, I’m a property rights activist,” Farris said. “I want less government, not more, and I’m on the board to try to strike that balance.”

The city approved the overlay in part due to the 2019 citizen survey released in July, according to commissioners. Of the 757 respondents, 71% said they were “concerned” or “very concerned” about the changing architectural image of new home construction, while 88% said they see zoning as “important” or “very important” for balancing economic growth with architectural identity.

“Everyone is looking at every possible negative related to this bill, but let’s flip it for a moment,” said Steve Horrell, who serves on the city’s Municipal Planning Commission. “How many times have you been driving down the street and you look at a house and say, ‘How did that get approved?’ ... The reason it got approved is because we didn’t have the level of oversight we will have under this situation.”

Commissioner Rusty Moore told residents the community survey was the driving factor for his support of the overlay.

“The issue of preservation was very loudly heard,” Moore said. “This commission, as a result of that survey, has moved through this year to put this in place.”

The HZC meets at 3 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month.
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