Conditional use of an old law firm on Race Avenue as a single-unit dwelling was granted last week by the Searcy Planning Commission to a couple who eventually want to turn it into a bed and breakfast.
A public hearing for the request from Rebecca Brown and her husband, Don, to rezone the old Choate Law Firm building at 402 E. Race Ave. from commercial (C2) to residential (R2) was held Tuesday afternoon.
“It is currently sitting vacant and I think everybody agrees it will be a great idea,” the Browns’ attorney, Kevin Lemley, told the commission concerning buying the property and making it a bed and breakfast. “They are going to do $100,000 worth of renovations to it to get it ready.”
Lemley said the request to rezone it was being made so that they can get the financing to do it. He said if it remained C2 and they got the “conditional use for a single family residence while they’re doing the renovation, that would also satisfy the financing needs.” He said they were just trying to get this into a tax-generating property, but the loan would have expired this week. Lemley said the renovations would take about six months.
“We want to help restore the historic building,” Rebecca Brown said. “We didn’t want it to get torn down.”
She said they want to be in complete alignment with the Downtown Searcy overlay district. She said the history of the building would not be changed but restored.
“Our desire for residential was to renovate and restore, and my dream is a bed and breakfast,” Brown said. “We need a contingency to live there as a resident of a one unit; it’s called dwelling one unit. It’s a win for the city. It’s a win for us. We can close on it next week.”
Brown said she and her husband would live at the property or do whatever is needed to comply with the city. She said they own two other properties in Searcy so they will have a place to stay but want to be a part of making Searcy better. She told Jordan they would have to live there to get a renovation loan.
Brown said she talked to their agent last Tuesday morning and she told her if they had something official in writing about their purpose and permission from the city that they had permission to live there as their residence that they could move forward.
Jill Ballentine, who lives behind the property, said that she and her husband “don’t necessarily have any issues with the zoning per se, we just care about the property and where it is located. We feel that the property itself is significant, both historically and just the way it looks and everything. Our concern is the condition of the property. We would really love to see someone care for it.”
Ballentine said that the property “hasn’t been cared for in a while. I think it’s been empty for over three years and we’ve lived in our house for four yearsm so we’re just wanting someone to care for the property and if that’s someone, if that’s them [the Browns] great. If that’s whoever, we just would like to see the property cared for.”
She said their support is “with the community at large and then anything that would go in the condition of maintaining the historical condition rather than, of course, tearing it down; we would not like to see that. Our house is part of that house, the original family. Our house used to sit in that property. Our house was moved in 1940 and that brick house was built, so our house and that house have historical history together so we care about the area.”
Bill Barger, who owns the property that the Conoco service station is on due east of the “Watkins House,” said that he has “mixed feelings” about the planned use of the property.
“I would hate to see it torn down and another service station put in right beside to be in competition with my service station, but a bed and breakfast in that area just does not …,” Barger said. “This is what caught me off-guard: I thought you was going to try to build some homes behind that are on Oak Street or Vine Street, but you got a lot of guts putting a bed and breakfast in right there, I’m saying; it just doesn’t fit to me as a traditional bed and breakfast, across the street from a funeral home, next door to a service station in a commercial area.”
He said he would like to see the property stay commercial. “I think that’s what that street is for.”
Commission member Larry DeGroat made the motion for granting a single-unit dwelling as a conditional use with no time frame on it. His motion was modified to say that if the property was ever converted back to commercial, including a bed and breakfast, that the conditional use was dead. It passed unanimously.
The decision can be appealed to the Searcy City Council, Searcy Planning and Development Director Richard Stafford said.
After the commission meeting, Rebecca Brown told The Daily Citizen that she and her husband were “very pleased” with the outcome of the meeting.
“We feel everything was done and everybody is in a win situation right now,” she said. “We love that home. We heard rumors it wanted to be torn down. My dream is a bed and breakfast but my husband [Don] is very wise. He says you can’t start something like that and go under renovation at the same time. First things first. We need a residence. We love the home. We’d like to live in it. It’s history and maybe do something with the community.”
Don Brown said there a lot of things that need to be addressed when it comes to the renovations. Rebecca Brown mentioned that the basement ceiling needs work, the floors need to be shored up, the roofing needs to be redone and it needs painting.