Should Johnson City Board of Zoning Appeals members live within the city? One does not.

Gary B. Gray • Nov 19, 2013 at 8:34 AM

It’s legal for Johnson City Board of Zoning Appeals members to reside outside the city limits, but officials from neighboring cities Bristol, Kingsport and Elizabethton say they prefer members to literally reside within municipal boundaries.

Tim O’Neill, one of Johnson City’s five BZA members, lives near Boone Lake in an unincorporated area of Washington County and not within the city limits. He is not violating any local or state law.

Tennessee cities can create specific membership requirements for the board, but state law does not require that the people approving or rejecting zoning changes live within the same corporate limits as affected homeowners, builders, developers and businesses.

“My primary residence is at the lake,” O’Neill said. “When I was appointed to the board, that was discussed. I own a lot of property within the city. It’s not like I’m in a paid position.”

Steve Neilson, the city’s development coordinator, said he spoke with Staff Attorney James Epps IV for clarification.

“There’s nothing in our regulations about residency for BZA members,” Neilson said. “You’re right, Mr. O’Neill lives outside the city. But he’s a big property owner, and he does a lot of work in the city. He is eligible to be on the board.”

Johnson City’s four other BZA members live within the city limits. The board is responsible for hearing and deciding appeals to the zoning code. The board also considers applications for special exceptions and makes decisions regarding interpretation of codes.

Elizabethton recently reduced the size of its BZA from seven to five, and all members reside within the city.

“State law does not require it, but I don’t think our staff would advise that we have members on that board that do not live within the city limits,” Elizabethton Planning and Development Director John Hartman said Monday. “It’s hard to think that people making these decisions would not be subject to the same restrictions and allowances they are ruling on.”

Johnson City code, Section 14-102, requires its Municipal Planning Commission consist of 10 members. One of the members is the city manager, one must be a member of the board of commissioners and the eight remaining members “shall be citizens of the city” appointed by a majority vote of city commissioners.

There is no mention of exceptions.

While city code outlines the makeup of Johnson City’s planning commission, it is mute on the composition of a BZA. However, when volunteers are needed, the city’s Community Relations Office sends out information stating what the board does, that potential members should be interested in community affairs and “be residents of the city.”

“To be eligible to serve as a BZA member here, you have to be a resident of the city,” said Tim Whaley, Kingsport’s Community and Government Relations director. “It’s pretty clear.”

Bristol City Attorney Jack Hyder also said board members in that city are required to live within its corporate boundaries, saying, “They actually have to live in the city.”

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