The investigation was initiated after a lawyer representing neighbors of the fraternity houses sent a letter to the city claiming the houses were violating the zoning code.
Chief Building Official Jim Sullivan confirmed Wednesday his department is investigating the former Sigma Phi Epsilon house at 719 W. Maple St., the Sigma Chi house at 734 W. Maple St., the former Lambda Chi Alpha house at 519 W. Pine St., (currently housing Sigma Alpha Epsilon) and the former Pi Kappa Alpha house at 406 W. Pine St.
“The letter alleges there have been violations of the zoning ordinances of Johnson City, and we’re looking into those right now to determine if indeed there are violations of the zoning ordinance and try to see what our course of action will be,” Sullivan said.
On Jan. 29, attorney Amber Lee sent Sullivan a letter urging him to investigate the four properties based on various allegations.
Lee’s letter said the properties in question were “grandfathered” as residential fraternity houses when the Tree Streets’ zoning code was officially changed in 1987 to R-2, or a low-density residential district.
“According to Johnson City zoning officials, the Board of Zoning Appeals did not grant a certification of non-conforming use at that time,” Lee wrote to Sullivan.
“Additionally, the properties have not been granted uses as permitted by special exception nor have the owners requested permission to convert the non-conforming use to another non-conforming use.”
Lee said each property has housed a fraternity that was suspended for more than one year and no longer recognized by East Tennessee State University.
She said the zoning code’s definition, at the time of the rezoning, required that fraternities be recognized by a local university, although that definition has since changed and no longer includes that requirement.
She also believes each of the four properties have unlawfully increased the number of dwelling units without gaining approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals.
“Each of the four properties has failed to make the non-conforming residential use comply with local, state and federal guidelines which resulted in negative health and safety impacts,” she wrote.
She also contends the Historic Zoning Commission did not approve the property owners’ modifications to the house facades, retaining walls and signage.
“Each property has undergone or is currently undergoing construction and renovations without city permits,” the letter claims.
She also noted the Sigma Phi Epsilon and Pi Kappa Alpha houses are no longer actually operating as fraternity houses.
According to ETSU’s website, Sigma Phi Epsilon is on alcohol probation through May 15, 2018, while Pi Kappa Alpha’s suspension became active on Jan. 10, 2018, and will last through Jan. 10, 2021.
Property records show the Sigma Phi Epsilon house was sold on Jan. 3 for $175,000 to a Buc House at ETSU, LLC. The Tennessee Secretary of State’s website shows no business listing with that name.
The Sigma Phi Epsilon Alumni ETSU Facebook page posted several times in early January about the house sale, saying the locks had been changed and fraternity members no longer had permission to enter the house.
Sigma Phi Epsilon alumni interested in learning about the new owner’s plans were told to email Richard Cazort with Sheridan Construction, a company based in Macon, Georgia.
In October, the Historic Zoning Commission denied the former owner White Castle Properties’ request to demolish the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house. Neighbors of the fraternity were reportedly interested in buying the house for the land.
For years, ETSU officials have discussed moving the fraternities on campus, but little progress has been made up to this point.
“We continue to explore options and have significant discussion regarding bringing fraternities to campus, however no formal decisions have been made at this point,” ETSU Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Joe Sherlin said.
Sullivan estimated the city’s investigation into the fraternities could last between a few weeks to a full month.