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Gainesville city council to decide on Norton Agency Insurance expansion
Some residents oppose agencys move in historic neighborhood
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In what's expected to be the most heated issue before the Gainesville City Council so far this year, members will weigh in on the proposed expansion of Norton Agency Insurance in a historic Gainesville neighborhood.

The agency, headquartered in three renovated houses on historic Green Street and Boulevard, prowposes to expand into another old house on 424 Boulevard.

City Council will have to approve a zoning change to allow the move, in addition to a request for a parking lot on the property.

Some residents of the neighborhood are speaking out against the expansion, expressing concern that the change will harm the historical nature of the street, create potential traffic hazards and reduce property values.

A resident on the street has hung a banner on the fence bordering his front yard to vent his concern. On it, a yellow cartoon that looks like Pac-Man is ready to devour a line of houses. The sign reads, "Stop Norton from destroying our neighborhood."

The agency's proposal for the 0.61-acre lot is to renovate the existing vacant home, which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Place, into office space.

The business' proposal includes removing some old trees, replacing its driveway and building enough parking for 20 vehicles.

The lot is intended to complement the Norton campus across the street. Norton officials said they will be good neighbors to the residents.

The renovations, city officials said, would have to "maintain the historical nature of the structure."

Gainesville Community Development Director Rusty Ligon said his department has received one letter, five emails and a petition with 35 signatures in opposition to the move.

The leader of that opposition is Fred Powell, a home and property owner on Boulevard, owner of the Pac-Man sign. The property in question sits next to his home.

Powell offers a list of points opposing the plan, most of them revolving around traffic safety issues and a loss of historic character to the neighborhood.

A decline in the property value to his home is also a told The Times he had also attempted to purchase the lot before a deal was made with Norton. Powell is the brother of Hall County Commissioner Billy Powell, a commercial realtor with Hokayem Co.

Frank Norton, president of The Norton Agency, denies the company would ruin the neighborhood, insisting instead that it is improving it.

Norton points to Green Street where the agency, followed by other businesses, took root converting old homes into offices while maintaining the historic character. He said the businesses also have been good neighbors to the remaining residents on the street.

"The character of town has been preserved by the businesses on Green Street," he said. "Gainesville is known by Green Street."

Taking that as an example, Norton said his agency is only bringing that to Boulevard.

"We are preservationists," he said. "We are using buildings for practical reuse, and I think it's a valuable contribution to the community."

However, Odis Sisk, another resident of Boulevard, said rezoning in the historic neighborhood is leaving only a "facade" of history.Powell concedes that businesses occupy most of the historic houses on Green Street and the west side of Boulevard. But he's trying to a draw a line in the street, hoping businesses won't cross to the east side where he lives.

Powell said he worries Norton's plans will bring more traffic to the side of Boulevard where families reside, where neighbors walk and where children ride bikes and scooters.

"We can live with them on the other side of the street," Powell said. "We just don't want them on our side."

Last month, the city's Community Development department recommended approval of the expansion, but with parking reduced from the Norton proposal. However, based on city code, the Gainesville Planning and Appeals Board approved the request with a maximum of 11 parking spaces, fewer than the requested 32.

Norton has offered a compromise of 20 spaces, but signaled the deal is dead without those spaces.

City Council will consider that parking compromise with the rest of the zoning request Tuesday. During a work session on Thursday, members reviewed the proposed plan.

Council member Ruth Bruner expressed some concerns about the proposed changes to the land, including the removal of some old trees in the front lawn and 100-year-old hedges in the back.

"This is a big loss on the front," she said. "It's very pretty."

Despite the vocal opposition, Mayor Danny Dunagan and Council Member Myrtle Figueras both said they had received phone calls from some residents in support of Norton and the expansion.

Dunagan also praised Norton's reputation for partnering with and improving the community.