To bring residents into the conversation, the Belle Meade Board of Commissioners approved two ordinances Aug. 22 to task a newly formed Historic Zoning Commission with establishing one or more historic overlay districts in Belle Meade.
“I don’t want people to be afraid of the word ‘historic,’” said Lyle Patterson, director of building and zoning for the city of Belle Meade. “We don’t want to tell people what they can and can’t do to their homes. We’re merely trying to keep the newly constructed homes in harmony with Belle Meade.
Once the Board of Commissioners appoints five members to the HZC, which was deferred at the Aug. 22 meeting, Patterson said the city will seek public input for design guidelines.
“What goes into the design guidelines will be heavily discussed in public meetings where residents share what kind of restrictions they want to see,” Patterson said. “We don’t want to rush into this.”
According to Patterson, the city is addressing this issue in part due to the city’s 2019 citizen survey. Of the 757 responses, 71% said they were “concerned” or “very concerned” about the changing architectural image of new home construction, while 88% said zoning is “important” or “very important” for balancing economic growth with architectural identity.
Data shows increased residential tear-downs and subsequent new construction, which has caught the attention of city officials. Patterson said around 30 homes have been demolished within the last two years and replaced with custom and speculative homes, or residences constructed to turn a profit.
However, Patterson said it was not only the number of tear-downs that caught his attention but also the style of construction.
“Ask any real estate agent about a white brick home with a pointed roofline and black windows, and they will tell you it’s going to sell,” he said. “You see these types of homes around Green Hills, and they are making their way into Belle Meade.”
Patterson, who compared this style to that of homes in Alys Beach, Florida, said the design is different from the Georgian- and neoclassical-style homes he associates with Belle Meade.
“These homes certainly have their place,” he said. “I just wonder if that place is in Belle Meade.”
Belle Meade resident Johnny Phipps said the new style of home has inspired him to change his stance on city design guidelines.
“I’ve been living in Belle Meade for 40 years, and I started out against a design criteria board,” Phipps said. “There are so many of these houses being built in Belle Meade that it’s getting out of hand. They are hurting the character of my street, and that’s just one street.”
Jane-Coleman Cottone, a historic preservation specialist for the Tennessee Historical Commission, works with local governments to pass historic zoning overlays.
“[Guidelines] are not about requiring a house to match the one next to it,” Cottone said. “It’s about whether or not the home generally fits in with the feel of the neighborhood.”
In July, THC staff members began cataloging the style and age of homes in Belle Meade, which will be presented to the HZC along with broad recommendations for the types of districts that make sense in Belle Meade.
According to Cottone, historic districts include two types of overlays: historic preservation overlays and neighborhood conservation overlays.
“The conservation option is less restrictive,” she said. “Its main goal is to prevent demolitions and review the design and the construction of homes going in.”
While Patterson said he envisions a conservation overlay as the best option, Cottone said the HZC and city commissioners will make the final call on what areas are protected.
“They have a big responsibility to make fair and defensible decisions based solely on design guidelines,” Cottone said.
City officials are also considering how a historic district may affect local property values. The median value of a home in Belle Meade is roughly $1.33 million, according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau data.
“In the 29 years I’ve worked here, property values have risen every year,” City Manager Beth Reardon said. “If you start introducing lesser-quality homes into the mix, that’s going to affect the property values in a negative way.”
Cottone, who said she lives in a mixed conservation district in Nashville, said studies point to historic protections stabilizing home values over time.
“I think there were people in the neighborhood who didn’t want [zoning] before it was passed, but I think it’s something that the vast majority did want, and we have stable property values as a result,” she said.