Codes office, neighbors watch empty fraternity house

Nathan Baker • May 15, 2018 at 11:23 PM

The clock is ticking for an empty Tree Streets fraternity house if its owners want to keep Greeks on the block.

Members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity moved out of 519 W. Pine St. this month after East Tennessee State University’s graduation. And an empty house means no one is fulfilling the requirements allowing the property to keep an exception from zoning codes allowing it to house fraternities, Johnson City Chief Building Official Jim Sullivan said Tuesday.

The two-story brick structure was grandfathered into the low-density residential zone in 1986, when the city adopted new accepted uses for the properties in the neighborhood. Fraternity and sorority houses are permitted in medium- and high-density residential-professional office districts.

If the property is not used as a fraternity house for more than a year, Sullivan said it will lose its 32-year-old exception from the zoning regulations.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon spokesman Johnny Sao confirmed the fraternity had vacated the house. It was renting the house, and members decided not to re-sign the lease so they could find another home, he said.

The property is owned by an independent housing corporation that caters to fraternities. Over the years, it has been home to several organizations. Before Sigma Alpha Epsilon, it was the Lambda Chi Alpha house until that fraternity was suspended from ETSU for five years amid hazing allegations.

Brian Lewis is listed as the principal of the Theta Chi Home Association of Sigma Nu, Inc., the company that owns the house. A call to his Bristol, Virginia, business Tuesday afternoon was not returned in time for publication.

If the property does lose its grandfathered status, some neighbors will likely be pleased.

For years, residents in the university-adjacent neighborhood known as the Tree Streets have clashed with the handful of fraternity houses in the area.

Noise and parking complaints are common, and neighbors have called for years for ETSU to move the fraternity members into on-campus student housing.

In February, a letter to the city building official from Johnson City attorney Amber Lee, a Tree Streets resident, sparked an investigation into the status of four fraternities Lee said were not recognized by ETSU for more than a year, and the properties should lose their grandfathered status.

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