Baxters sue Town Hall (and others)

Betty BeanOur Town Leaders

Charlotte Davis was working in her front yard when she noticed a police car rolling slowly down her street. It didn’t worry Davis – a retired nurse, former Fountain City Woman of the Year and longtime resident of Adair Gardens – not even when the cruiser pulled into her driveway.

“Maybe I don’t have enough sense to be scared, but it didn’t bother me at all when the officer – a very nice lady – got out of her car and said, ‘I have something to give you,’” Davis said.

Charlotte Davis at home.

That’s how she found out that she is being sued in her capacity as treasurer of Fountain City Town Hall by Baxter Properties LLC in a lawsuit filed Aug. 18 in Chancery Court. The Adair Gardens Residents’ Association president Matt McMillan is also a named defendant. Adair Gardens is a well-maintained older neighborhood tucked between Broadway and Tazewell Pike. Some of its homes are on the National Register of Historic Places. The homeowners are vigilant about preservation.

The plaintiff is asking the court to overturn Knoxville City Council’s decision to uphold the planning commission’s denial of a Baxter Properties rezoning request on a now-vacant Sanders Drive parcel around the corner from Davis’s home. The disputed parcel is one of five contiguous Baxter properties between Tazewell Pike, Sanders and Adair Drive.

Carlene Malone was named, as well. She and Davis wrote letters on behalf of Town Hall opposing the rezoning, which was denied by Knoxville–Knox County Planning and then appealed to the city council, which upheld the planning body’s decision to deny the rezoning. This, says Baxter Properties attorney Ben Mullins, makes them “interested parties.” He maintains that the council’s denial of the Baxter Properties rezoning appeal had no rational basis and asks the court to order a re-hearing of the matter.

He said the neighborhood advocates are included because they “communicated opposition to Baxter Properties rezoning request.” Read the lawsuit: Baxter Properties lawsuit 2020.

The Sanders Drive parcel has generated considerable angst in recent years, beginning in 2018 when Baxter Properties evicted optometrist John Tumblin from a building that housed his practice for 20 years. He died the following summer, just days after the owners of Fountain City Diner announced that they were closing down because Baxter Properties was raising the rent to a level they couldn’t afford. The diner was packed with customers until it closed in mid-August.

Word started getting around that the new tenant was to be a beer garden. The rezoning was to provide additional parking for the new business. Neighbors lined up against the request, and at some point, the beer garden proprietors lost interest – the pandemic probably didn’t help matters. Sweet Pea’s BBQ is the new prospective tenant, the lawsuit says.

Baxter Properties isn’t asking for damages, so it’s unclear whether this is technically a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) suit aimed at chilling dissent. But it’s got to be daunting for citizens to be forced to hire a lawyer to defend their right to speak their minds. And it should be remembered that Fountain Citians have long memories.

Republican Grant Rosenberg was the only Fountain City resident who submitted a pro-rezoning letter for the planning commission’s consideration. He lost to his Democratic opponent in the Aug. 6 general election.

Betty Bean writes a weekly opinion column for

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