Rezoning of Old Willis Dairy hits another snag

By Davondra M. Alston
Outlook writer

Getting a rezoning permit is becoming quite an agonizing odyssey for the owners of the Old Willis Dairy.

Frank and Peper Willis converted the 80-year-old farm house into an event venue, but eight months ago they were told that it wasn’t zoned for the type of business they’d been conducting.

The couple was granted clearance by the Zoning Commission several months ago, but has been unable to get approval from the Tallahassee City Commission. They found out last week that they will have to wait another four months while the commission evaluates their request.

The commission’s primary concern is that too many residents of the surrounding neighborhood complain of noise and traffic congestion. The property is located off Centerville Road, less than a mile north of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, Obviously frustrated by the second straight delay in a month, Frank Willis wondered what else he could do to move forward.

“I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do,” he said. “And we got it affirmed through the Planning Commission and I thought we would be able to sail through.”
Another sticking point with the Commission is evaluating future land use of the dairy.

The commission put off its decision, suggesting that the Willises  apply to the Planned Unit Development to schedule at least two more public hearings with the Development Review Committee.

Should it clear the Planned Unit Development process, the property could potentially  be zoned for commercial.

The history and ambience of the farm made it a popular venue after it was reconstructed and opened several months ago. Meetings, weddings and birthday parties were common before the business was forced to shut down for rezoning.

Established in 1937 by F.E. Willis and Emma Kate Hilliard Willis, the property has become a historic landmark in Tallahassee. When the 20-acre property on Goodwood Drive was in operation it was the largest independent milk producer in Tallahassee. The farm house has two bedrooms.
As part of the renovation, the Willises added parking spaces for 40 cars.

However, the surrounding neighborhood has been split in its support of the rezoning.

“Since the activities that have been going, I can hardly hear my TV over the noise next door,” said Faye Smith, who lives nearby and opposes the use of the farm as an event venue. “It’s also a great amount of traffic throughout our neighborhood. We live on a single road (and) it’s not like you could put lines on the road.
People have been parking on the side of the road (and) I found beer bottles in my ditch.”

Nancy Morgan, co-executive director of Goodwood Museum and Gardens, told the commission that the farm house should be supported because of its historic significance. She also pointed to the economic benefits of the business.

“Having special places like Goodwood, like Willis Dairy, like Cascades Park is very important for us to be able to connect to our heritage and to build up the future as well,” Morgan said. “I know that there are difficulties from two types of use coming up against one another.

“I’ve seen Peper and Frank in action and I know that they are excellent partners for the community, they’re very community-minded. They are doing their very best to make this work (and) those efforts would be good enough for me.”

The Willises have responded to residents by hosting an open house. They’ve even expressed willingness to compromise by limiting events to no later than 10 p.m., while agreeing to keep amplified music inside the barn.

But even those changes don’t seem to be enough to win over the Commission.

“I didn’t know much about the farm, but I had gotten lots of calls and complaints from people in the neighborhood,” said Commissioner Curtis Richardson. “I’ve been a champion and advocate for our neighborhoods.

“When that vote came up to approve a rezoning, I just didn’t think it was the right thing to do.”

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