Karen Hoff, one of the most high-profile, prolific real estate agents in town, is engaged in a messy dispute with East Nashville residents and city officials that threatens to sully her reputation, land her in court and maybe even sidetrack her remarkably successful career.
On May 13, the East End Neighborhood Association unanimously rejected Hoff's proposal to amend the Five Points Redevelopment Overlay so that she could operate a real estate office at 1105 Holly Street, a largely residential area just a short walk away from East Nashville's bustling Five Corners intersection. (More than 40 members attended the meeting, but no one voted in Hoff's favor.) Passed by the Metro Council in 1989, the overlay places land-use restrictions in the area. If you plan to develop a piece of property that goes against that overlay, your first stop is the neighborhood association. If they say no, that might be your last stop.
"After 20 years of helping people in this market, giving thousands of hours of free volunteer time in the last 20 years, I am very shocked at how I was treated," Hoff told the Scene, before threatening to pull her advertising with the paper if a story about the dispute were printed. "When I walked in the door," she added, "everybody had made up their mind."
But some of the residents who were at the meeting at the East Nashville branch of Bongo Java say they were willing to give Hoff the benefit of the doubtuntil she began her talk.
"Some influential, persuasive people were on the fence at the beginning of the meeting, but then in her presentation she never once said how it was going to benefit the neighborhood," says attorney and nearby resident Whitney Kemper. "I never heard that. I was waiting to hear that. She had every opportunity to say, 'I'll help out with neighborhood cleanup' or 'I'll help out in showing houses.' Instead, she underplayed the impact her office would have in the neighborhood."
Rather than reach out, residents say, Hoff gave a defensive, even boastful presentation that at one point had her taking credit for East Nashville's revitalization. During the meeting, Jeff Ockerman, a former Metro Council member for the area (and a possible mayoral candidate; see Political Notes on page 19), disputed the extent of her role as an agent of change. Another resident passed a note that read, "Karen Hoff also invented the Internet." All in all, it wasn't a good evening for the indisputably successful Realtor.
Others, however, say that Hoff's proposal never had a chance. One of the city's most vigilant, hyperactive community groups, the East End Neighborhood Association regards protective zoning as sacrosanct and one of the catalysts in the neighborhood's remarkable resurgence. To them, it's what keeps their neighborhood from turning into Bellevue. Naturally, they view any measure that goes against the zoning overlay as an affront to their finely tuned progressive sensibilities.
"The neighborhood is just protecting its boundaries," says Lindsey Fairbanks, a past president of the neighborhood association. "We believe strongly that when the development plan was written, it was in the best interests of the neighborhood, and we have no evidence to suggest that's not true."
Shortly after the gathering at Bongo Java, neighborhood association president Jean Harrison told Hoff that the residents had rebuffed her request to amend the overlay. But Hoff decided to operate the real estate office anyway. In fact, Harrison says that Hoff was already running a business there the day she appeared before the neighborhood group. Last week, a codes inspector dropped by Hoff's office on Holly Street and informed her she needed a permit to operate her business. The inspector also instructed her to take down her sign. Nearly a week later, Hoff's sign continued to stand defiantly in the yard. Two days after the inspector visited, she was still meeting with clients out of the Holly Street home. Hoff has now applied for her commercial use permit, but it has not yet been approved.
And it won't be anytime soon. To obtain the use and occupancy permit she needs, she must have approval from the Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA). It isn't likely to bless Hoff's request, however, given the neighborhood group's overwhelming opposition to amending the overlay.
Hoff says she's in the process of talking to the agency and "working it all out," indicating that approval is imminent and a mere formality. The Five Points Plan, she says, merely "recommends" that she not use the property as an office. It doesn't mandate it. But Joe Cain, the acting director of development for MDHA, says that the Five Points Plan restricts the use of the property to a one- or two-family residence. What about a real estate office? "The Five Points Plan does not allow it," he says. "We'll continue to review the plan a little more, but it seems that the plan does not allow it, and if the plan does not allow it, she will not be approved."
Hoff, however, is drawing a line in the East Nashville sand. "I can't stop my business; it would financially devastate me," she says. "If somebody does stop me, that's when the legal process will begin."
Initially, Hoff contacted District 6 Metro Council member Mike Jameson, who represents the area, about amending the plan. He advised her, however, to appear before the neighborhood association first. Had those residents supported Hoff's request, Jameson would have filed a council ordinance to amend the Five Points Plan. The city's legislative body probably would have voted in favor of Jameson's procedural measure, and Hoff would have been able to meet with her many real estate clients at the Holly Street property. There would have been no need to go to MDHA, and the whole thing would have been a nonissue. But Jameson says that without the neighborhood's approval, he won't take her request to the Metro Council.
"At least for me, neighborhood wishes are almost always going to trump the will of any particular individual or developer," he says.
So now Hoff is in limbo. But she continues to operate her business on Holly Street, much to the chagrin of her neighbors and the city's top Codes Department zoning administrator. It's one thing for a landfill owner or used car lot to defy Metro. But for a high-profile Realtor who relies on goodwill to make a living, this level of intransigence is rare.
"She doesn't have any permits to be operating a business out of there," says Sonny West, the city's zoning administrator. "The permit she has now was to renovate a four-family dwelling and convert it to a single-family dwelling." As for Hoff's explanation that she can operate an office there now that she's filed for a permit, West retorts simply, "Her explanation is incorrect. You can't operate until you have the permit in your hand."
West adds that Hoff could face a $50 fine for each day she continues to operate a business without a permit. The next step would be for the Codes Department to file an injunction against her to prevent her from using the property as an office. If she were to violate that, she could face jail time.
In just about any other neighborhood, Hoff would have been heralded as a hero. In April 2003, Hoff and her husband, Robert, bought the unsightly quadplex for $133,000. The property apparently was a drug-dealing outpost and home to other equally unsettling troublemaking, standing as blight on an otherwise charming East Nashville street. Hoff sunk a good deal of money into the 2,600-square-foot property, and even her fiercest detractors concede that she did an admirable job rehabbing the house. They just want to keep it as a house.
When the Realtor first began work on the property, which totals a mere one-fifth of an acre, she took out a residential permitnot a commercial one. Hoff says that originally she and her husband had planned either to rent it or sell it. Some contend that she took out the residential permit, instead of a commercial one, because it meant jumping through fewer bureaucratic hoops.
"It seems like she never intended to use it as a dwelling; she intended to use it as a real estate business," West says.
Linsey Fairbanks, the former neighborhood association president, says that Hoff told her from the start that she planned to operate some sort of business from the home.
"I contacted her last year after she bought [it] and asked her what her intention was, and she said she wanted to do a commercial venture," Fairbanks recalls. "I asked her if she could maintain the property as residential. She told me there wasn't anything we could do about it, that she had the zoning."
Hoff says, however, that what happened was that she later decided the property would work better as an office. And the actual zoning on the property seems to allow her to do that. But the redevelopment plan trumps the earlier zoning. And the redevelopment plan calls for the home to be used only as a residence.
This is all very confusing, of course, but if there was anyone who could be expected to know the arcane development rules and regulations of an urban neighborhood like East Nashville, it's an experienced Realtor like Hoff. In any case, even if there were no overlay, she still would have needed to apply for a commercial use permit.
"Zoning gave me a letter saying it's perfectly suitable and fine for a real estate office," says Hoff, who ran for an East Nashville seat in the Metro Council in 1995 and lost. "I screwed up. I thought that's all I needed."
Hoff says that she closed on more than 200 homes last year and on more than 100 so far in 2004. "I sell more affordable housing than anyone else," she says. She's probably right. And, it's worth noting, many of the people who have fixed up run-down homes in East Nashville no doubt crossed the river at her suggestion. Were it not for Realtors like her who believed in East Nashville when few others did, the area wouldn't have become one of the more trendy addresses in town.
Meanwhile, Hoff is ubiquitous, from her costly advertising in the Scene to her prolific billboards. Formerly with Village Real Estate, Hoff recently departed and now is with ERA Historic and Distinctive Homes. She's the listing agent on the Harrison Loft Projects, a planned condominium development near the Bicentennial Capitol Mall. For Karen Hoff, it's one success story after another. Yet inexplicably, she's threatening to derail a lucrative career over a neighborhood dispute that can't possibly be resolved in her favor.
Hoff insists that her office will barely impact the neighborhood, though she says that eight other Realtors will be working out of her Holly Street office. Most of the time, she says, they'll be out selling homes, so there won't be a parade of cars.
But her neighbors seem to disagree, already reporting sightings of double-parked cars outside the office. They're irritated that she's operating her business without the necessary approvals. "For somebody who markets herself as caring about the neighborhood, well, we'd like to see that," Harrison says. "She knew a year ago that the neighborhood did not want this to go commercial, but she didn't think she needed our permission."
Hoff claims that Harrison is out to get her. But asked why nearly 40 other residents voted against her proposal, the Realtor claims that the East End Neighborhood Association is not representative of the entire neighborhood. She adds that she heard from many people who support her project. Hoff may be right, but unfortunately not a single one of them attended last month's meeting.
"I think there was some emotional discussion from Karen's perspective and the neighbors," Jeff Ockerman says. "But in the end there was a logical discussion about why this property should remain in residential use."
So basically it's not personal, it's just business. Or to be more accurate, just keeping business out of the 'hood.
"We're just trying to keep our residential core intact," says Jean Harrison. "It's not that we don't like her," she says. "That has nothing to do with it."
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