Townsend commissioners late Tuesday approved on first reading annexing nearly 14 acres of land off Webb Road on the north side of Little River, but deferred requests to alter its zoning, given that developers have expressed interest in building rental cabins there.

Attached to the request for annexation from Blount County to Townsend came a request to rezone the land to R-1 Low Density Residential District.

Commissioners unanimously approved the annexation — the first for the town in 2021 — but stopped short at the rezoning after an engineer representing the property owners explained they wanted to build rental cabins.

“They’re wanting to put in some rental cabins and a small event center to host church groups, weddings, reunions, what have you,” Civil & Environmental Consultants engineer Matt Sprinkle told commissioners.

“That is contiguous with our city limits,” Townsend Mayor Michael Talley said, “so I don’t think that would be an issue. ... But, as far as the rental program, is it going to be kind of like a VRBO or like a business establishment?”

“It would be short-term rentals, but it would be operated by the property owner,” Sprinkle said.

“I wonder how appropriate it would be to zone that R-1, seeing as how they plan to establish it as a business,” Talley said.

“Tourist residences” are permitted in the R-1 Low Density Residential District, according to chapter 6 of the city’s code, but more commercial endeavors might require something like a B-1 zoning — General Business. Most of the land right off U.S. Highway 321 in Townsend is zoned B-1.

“I’d like to see how the property owners around it feel since it’s all residential right now,” Commissioner Becky Headrick added, reflecting on how the land might be developed.

Other commissioners noted that a rezoning might require a formal public hearing.

“As far as zoning, you would qualify for B-1 zoning request because it is adjacent to other B-1 properties,” Talley said.

“But then you’ve got the subdivision, which is R-1,” Headrick said, noting a cluster of homes just to the north of the land in question.

“Yeah, they’d probably want to have a chance to give public input,” Talley said.

Before the board voted, Commissioner Don Stallions asked Sprinkle, “So, you’re good with annexation going forward without knowing about zoning?”

“Yes,” Sprinkle said.

Since zoning goes hand-in-hand with how the city will serve the land, a move to create a plan of services for the land also was stalled until a later meeting.

The annexation likely will come back to the city in its August commission meeting for second reading.

Property records show the land’s owners as of Jan. 1, 2021, were Nathan and Kathrine Schrock.

Townsend recently has seen a flurry of economic proposals including bike trails, a distillery, a Family Dollar-Dollar Tree location, a brewery and kitchen — a Mark Oldham family project — next to the IGA and rental spaces, similar to the ones discussed Tuesday.

Some of these are moving forward: Oldham scored a beer permit Tuesday night and wants to open part of that operation in the fall.

Some aren’t: The Dollar Tree project was apparently canned, according to a letter from the Townsend Cades Cove Gateway Alliance.

Leaders are keeping up with commercial development not only by hearing interested parties out in public meetings but also by tweaking codes.

For example, Tuesday saw an ordinance pass unanimously requiring site plans to “be prepared and certified by a licensed engineer, landscape architect and/or surveyor,” something that wasn’t required until now.

Follow @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter for more from city government reporter Andrew Jones.

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