Farm land may come out of Gray annexation plan

Gary B. Gray • Apr 20, 2012 at 10:47 AM

Most Gray area farm owners remained tight-lipped and apprehensive when the City Commission on Thursday asked for the third and final reading of the Suncrest Annexation to come back to the table next month with all agricultural land stripped from a revised ordinance.

The agricultural land does need to be taken off, but increased property taxes still could sting people in the area living on fixed incomes, said Ron Maden, a Gray resident of 26 years.

“It’s (Johnson City) an evil empire,” he said. “There’s nothing democratic about it.”

About 100 people potentially affected by Johnson City’s proposed annexation of more than 300 acres on or near Suncrest Drive picketed outside the Municipal and Safety Building before packing commission chambers. Following the pleas of about a dozen property owners — some steeped with anger; others quiet with humble resignation — Mayor Jeff Banyas made a motion that charged City Manager Pete Peterson with the task of having city staff rework the ordinance.

Banyas asked for an ordinance that removes all 215 acres (70 percent) of land within the annexation zoned for farm or agricultural use and that changes commercial areas zoned B-4 to be rezoned B-5. Commissioners voted 4-0 on the measure. Vice Mayor Phil Carriger abstained due to having family in that area.

“I will vote for this to go forward,” said Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin. “But I am disappointed that some of the alternatives I introduced are not going to work. I’m certainly very interested in seeing what the staff comes up with.”

People potentially affected also are interested, but most were not smiling about the turn of events, though it seemed a victory was won.

“This is the first offer Johnson City has made for anything,” said Johnny Gray, who has an vested interest in agricultural property in Gray. “I’m still very apprehensive.”

Gray resident Eddie Lambert’s response was one of resignation.

“Yeah, they’re going to reassess it, but I feel like it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

Washington County Commissioner Mark Larkey, who represents the district in which the annexation is proposed, said he looked at the commissioners’ action as a positive.

“I think they’re being sincere,” he said. “I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, and I think they’re trying to come up with a compromise.”

The Suncrest Annexation, which is comprised of more than 300 acres on or near Suncrest Drive, is the first phase of a planned 600-acre annexation that includes land along the Bobby Hicks corridor. The city wants to expand its jurisdiction starting from just northeast of the Gray Fossil Museum parking lot past Interstate 26 to a point about 4.5 miles northwest on State Route 75, and the Suncrest Annexation is the starting point.

A public hearing Thursday finally came for those wanting to speak, but for many there just has not been enough communication between residents and city commissioners between the first reading and a deferral of the second reading until this point.

Danny Sells, who organized Citizens to Maintain Gray and owns property bordering the Keebler Farm, one of the larger chunks of farmland in this annexation, argued that two meetings between affected residents, Peterson and Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge were not sufficient.

“I’ve never wanted it to appear to you that I know what’s best for you,” said Commissioner Clayton Stout. “I always hear the word ‘when.’ The question is, ‘when is the right time?’ ”

The proposed annexation is within the city’s Urban Growth Boundary, and it does not violate any city or state laws. This is a fact Gray residents and county commissioners have stated themselves many times, but most still say that just because the annexation is legal doesn’t make it right.

“Land usage should be governed by the land owner, not the government,” said David Jenkins.

Unless there’s a snag along the way, commissioners should review and vote on a revised ordinance — a third and final reading — on May 3.

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