What seemed to be an inevitability on a fast track suddenly turned on a dime Thursday when the Suncrest Annexation was halted.
The City Commission deferred the first reading until alternatives and further dialogue between the potentially affected residents in Gray, and both Johnson City and Washington County officials can be openly and thoroughly discussed.
The move surprised about 100 Gray residents who prior to the meeting protested with signs and banners on the steps of the Municipal & Safety Building. County Commissioners representing the 7th District also were on hand and they too expressed surprise. But that emotion was mixed with gratitude.
“I feel like they heard our pleas,” said County Commissioner Mike Ford. “They seem like they’re willing to work together. I know there’s been flared tempers. This was unexpected. It sounds like Johnson City has offered an olive branch. I know the city has a lot invested in this, but so do the people in Gray. There’s been a lot of tears shed.”
Mayor Jeff Banyas and commissioners Clayton Stout, Jane Myron and Ralph Van Brocklin voted to defer. Vice Mayor Phil Carriger abstained, citing the fact that he has family in the annexation area.
“Johnson City does have a vested interest, and this also is a gateway to Johnson City from the Tri-Cities Regional Airport,” Banyas said before turning to City Manager Pete Peterson and saying that he had a problem with annexing farms, which make up more than 60 percent of the proposed annexation.
Banyas then proposed deferring the matter to allow more time for conversation with those who could be affected. Van Brocklin, who agreed in principle with Banyas, outlined a point-by-point scenario under which he would accept annexation. Van Brocklin told audience members he felt it was important that the Gray residents want to be involved in their destiny and applauded their participation.
“This is not something the City Commission or Regional Planning Commission take lightly,” he said.
Van Brocklin said he was open to the idea of annexation, however he asked for an “open discussion” between city and county commissioners, and the affected residents, perhaps by way of a workshop or several workshops.
“I think there are workable solutions outside the realm of annexation,” he said.
Myron expressed strongly her desire to end any public arguments and to instead begin informed discussions.
“It’s going to take another meeting — sorry,” she said. “I can almost promise you a resolution through discussion.”
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 which 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.
The boundary of the Suncrest Annexation begins at the edge Gray Fossil Museum parking lot and extends northeast to the existing city limits, and the estimated property tax revenue generated annually by the city is an estimated $88,750; annual sales tax revenue is estimated at about $103,000.
Plans for the move did not appear suddenly. Almost one year ago, city planners provided maps and other information at a city workshop about the overall annexation, which is legal and within the city Urban Growth Boundary. And the Johnson City Regional Planning Commission voted 6-1 last month to recommend to the City Commission that the annexation go forward.
Gray, a rural suburb of Johnson City, is in Washington County and is part of the Johnson City Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is a component of the Johnson City–Kingsport–Bristol, TN-VA Combined Statistical Area — commonly known as the Tri-Cities region.
The town is no longer primarily rural farmland, thanks to suburban growth, new chain restaurants and other commercial and residential development gradually creeping in. But it still is surrounded by agricultural land, some of which has been handed down from generation to generation for 200 years.
“This is the first time during this annexation process that (the City Commission has) taken our feelings into consideration,” said County Commissioner Mark Larkey. “In my six years on the commission, this is probably the biggest showing from people I’ve seen. I represent my constituents, so I think we do need to have a dialogue between city and county officials, and those affected by this. I think Mr. Van Brocklin had some good ideas. I think we need to establish a way of annexation in which the citizens have a say in whether they want to be a part.”