Commissioners discuss downtown, zoning, business recruitment at lengthy meeting

Gary B. Gray • Feb 22, 2014 at 8:51 PM

Will Johnson City go into “de-annexation” mode and sue the state to recoup infrastructure investments?

These were very serious points put forward Saturday morning at one of the City Commission’s informal strategic planning sessions at Memorial Park Community Center.

The term de-annexation and the suggestion to seek legal action bubbled up about three hours into a four-hour meeting, somewhere between the formulation of a new mission statement and how much the city might have on hand next year for paving.

Following City Manager Pete Peterson’s explanation of a need for a new State of Franklin Road/Interstate 26 interchange, as well as new signage to help guide visitors and encourage more tourism and shopping, the “A” word appeared.

“We need to provide more incentives for developers closer to the city’s core, which will help us keep the cost of services down, such as water and sewer,” he said. “In light of legislation regarding annexation that could greatly affect us, we’re actually talking de-annexation — about limiting urban sprawl and how that can benefit the city.”

On Feb. 12, the state’s House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee approved a bill sponsored by state Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-6th, that mandates local referendums and lets property owners decide whether they want to be annexed into municipal Urban Growth Boundaries.

This is not the way the city has been operating. A moratorium also is in place on all “forced” annexations, and the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations last year was tasked with reviewing the state’s Growth Policy Act (Public Chapter 1101, Acts of 1998). TACIR has asked that the May 15 deadline for a full report and recommendation be extended another year.

“We have several hundred miles of infrastructure in place in areas that could be annexed into the city, most of which is in high-traffic areas,” Peterson told commissioners. “The tragic thing about what the legislature is discussing now is 1101, which set up boundaries in which we logically expected to grow. Now they change the rules. Other than the Gray annexation, 90 percent of our annexations since 2000 were owner-requested. There will be no return on investment now.”

Commissioner Jeff Banyas replied: “If it happens we’re not allowed to annex we should sue the state, because we’ve poured millions of dollars into infrastructure.”

Commissioners nodded their heads in agreement.

“If we have to start selling stuff (land/infrastructure-related service) off, we’re going to be back where we were 50 years ago,” Peterson said. “We have sewer and water all the way to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport. The days of unbridled growth, as well as sales tax growth, are over.”

Peterson is forecasting a 2 percent drop in sales tax revenue next fiscal year. He also said a clamp on annexation could affect the building of new roads and schools where municipal infrastructure is now in place. Commissioners discussed most of the 11 main goals established at prior Saturday meetings, including downtown growth and revitalization. In an effort to promote the city and to encourage investment, commissioners are considering the establishment of a Neighborhood Improvement Program, where each neighborhood would be allocated money for improvements they deem important.

“To me, you start by improving aesthetics and safety,” Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin said regarding his foundational approach to improving downtown. “You have to put that in place to create the environment we’re trying to promote.”

The group also discussed the need to become more proactive than reactive when it comes to rezoning, and the recent hearing on a rezoning for Evolve Development’s new 216-unit apartment complex was mentioned. Commissioners cited this rezoning as an example of where their intent was not to do any harm, though the amount of resistance was very high.

Commissioners agreed to perhaps try a different approach by establishing a model for certain areas in which the zoning would entice developers without putting extra burdens on existing businesses or residences.

Van Brocklin also said the Washington County Economic Development Council needs to formulate better plans regarding the targeting and recruitment of new business to Johnson City.

“Perhaps the city should play a bigger role in that process,” he said. “They (WCEDC) listen politely, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of legwork going on.”

Commissioners do seem to enjoy the Saturday, early morning sessions and they say it gives them an opportunity to meet at a time when their schedules are freer and there is more time to look at and define long-term goals and solutions to recurring issues.

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