BrightRidge is asking Washington County officials to contribute matching funding for an $8.8 million project to expand broadband in rural areas of the county.
“This is a generation opportunity to bridge the rural digital divide for our residents,” Stacy Evans, BrightRidge’s chief broadband officer, told members of the county’s Commercial, Industrial and Agricultural Committee on Thursday.
The public utility plans to apply for a $6.17 million emergency broadband grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development to address pockets of unserved neighborhoods in its service area between Tenn. Highway 107 and Interstate Highway 81 near Fall Branch.
BrightRidge is asking Washington County to provide $2.64 million to cover the 30% local match to receive the broadband grant. Evans told officials on Thursday those funds could come from the county’s $25.1 million share of the American Recovery Plan Act.
The state grant would allow BrightRidge to provide its high-speed broadband and Wi-Fi services to more than 1,800 homes with approximately 5,400 residents in communities near Hartmantown, Harmony, Bowmantown and Conklin, as well as small sections in Greene County.
The grant would pay for the construction of 230 miles of fiber to expand internet services to those areas. Evans said BrightRidge also plans to make a $2.36 million investment to extend fiber between the newly connected areas that could serve an additional 5,629 homes.
Evans said the broadband grant represents a “game changer” for the county’s economic development efforts.
“This project bridges the digital divide by providing the nation’s fastest broadband service to our residents, which can ensure Washington County is competitive as a national market for retaining and attracting residents, new businesses, jobs and highly skilled workers,” he said.
Although a lack of a quorum prevented the CIA committee from taking action on the BrightRidge request, the panel’s chairman said he wanted to see the utility’s grant proposal placed on the agenda for the full County Commission to consider at its meeting on Jan. 24. BrightRidge officials said they are working on a tight schedule, with a March 15 deadline to submit the grant proposal to the state.
“This is exciting news,” Commissioner Phil Carriger said. “The train is rolling, so let’s get it done.”
Jeffery Dykes, the CEO of BrightRidge, said the expansion of broadband to currently unserved areas of Washington County is a key component of economic development. He said it aids in attracting remote workers to Washington County and provides the technology needed to keep local high school graduates living and working in the region.
“People call and ask where we provide broadband services because that’s where they are looking to buy a house,” Dykes said.
The emergency broadband funding was made possible by a directive from Gov. Bill Lee to earmark $500 million of Tennessee’s ARPA funds for expanding broadband service in rural areas. Dykes noted the state awarded BrightRidge a grant match of $2.47 million in 2020 that resulted in providing broadband service for 647 unserved homes in the Bowmantown and Pleasant Valley communities.
Evans said residents in those communities had previously been forced to drive to the parking lots of a local Lowe’s Home Improvement or Walmart to get an internet connection so that their children could complete their school work.
A rezoning for 178 townhomes on Knob Creek Road, which the developers have said would charge an average rent of $1,500, has received final approval from the Johnson City Commission.
Longbranch Development Company asked the city to rezone a 22-acre property at 2644 Knob Creek Road from B-4 (planned arterial business) to RP-3 (planned residential). The request passed 4-0 on third reading Thursday.
With nearby residents concerned the project would intensify existing traffic issues along Knob Creek and West Mountainview roads, Commissioner Jenny Brock urged the city to “do everything humanly possible” to mitigate those problems.
“It is a problem today,” she said.
That could include expediting road upgrades in that area. Johnson City is developing plans to expand West Mountainview Road and West Oakland Avenue to a three-lane corridor, a roughly $2 million project that commissioners may consider in their next budget.
Residents have also been waiting for the Tennessee Department of Transportation to begin upgrades to Knob Creek Road, which would involve constructing a five-lane overpass above the existing CSX railroad.
The improvements also include closing a single-lane tunnel under the rail line to motorists. That tunnel regularly causes backups on West Mountainview and Knob Creek roads.
The upgrades on Knob Creek Road do not yet have a precise timeline. The city is still negotiating with property owners as it acquires right-of-way and is waiting for the railroad to sign off on the project plans. Once that’s complete, the city will submit the plans to TDOT for approval.
Longbranch Development Company expects construction of the townhome complex will begin in summer 2022 with full completion in late 2023 or early 2024.
Johnson City Mayor Joe Wise echoed Brock’s commitment to deal with traffic problems, adding that people often forget the type of authority the city has when it comes to requests like this.
“They think that we’re going to choose whether land gets used,” he said. “The city’s authority is to determine land use. It is not to determine whether land is used. We don’t own that land.”
Traffic, he said, wouldn’t improve under a B-4 zoning designation.
“Will the traffic be improved by adding more housing out there? It’s not going to be improved,” he said. “I don’t know that it’ll be made appreciably worse, and I think the commitment we need to make is on the public infrastructure that services that, and I think that commitment has obviously already been initiated.”
City officials have noted that a big box retail store, which is already permitted under a B-4 designation, could produce thousands more trips per day than the residential development.
“I’ve heard from folks that have said, ‘Well, you know nobody’s building big box retail,’” Wise said. “Well, that’s probably more or less true, but there’s a lot of things that can go into B-4 that aren’t big box retail, and we’re seeing a lot of that kind of development happening in Johnson City right now.”
In the long-term, he said, less-intensive residential zoning will offer a better transition between existing neighborhoods and the commercial corridor along North State of Franklin Road.
City commissioners on Thursday approved the annexation of 40 acres of property off Indian Ridge Road, a request that could accommodate construction of 125 single-family homes.
Staff estimate the annexation will generate $157,000 in annual property taxes.
The project is part of a regional effort launched by an alliance of homebuilders, landowners and financial partners to improve the availability of housing in the Tri-Cities. The land sits close to Indian Ridge’s intersection with Hopper Road and is owned by Cambro Partners.
Commissioners also voted on second reading to assign R-2C zoning to the land, but Brock and Wise had concerns about the characteristics and allowable density of that designation. It would allow a maximum of 232 dwelling units on the property.
“When you think about a 6,000-square-foot lot,” Wise said, “by the time you put any kind of a house footprint on there and then a driveway and maybe a garage, my concern is you can conceivably arrive at a density where realistically you’re going to have more cars than you have places to put them.”
Wise asked developer Danny Karst to speak with city staff and consider a less dense zoning designation, R-2B, as an alternative. Commissioners will consider the zoning assignment again on Jan. 20.
With a national shortage of the monoclonal antibody treatment most effective against the omicron coronavirus variant, Ballad Health announced Thursday that it would follow guidelines from the National Institutes of Health to limit the treatment to those at highest risk for severe illness — namely those who are immunocompromised and those who are not fully vaccinated.
“With the highly contagious omicron variant circulating in our region, requests for these therapies at Ballad Health facilities have far outpaced the supply made available to Ballad Health,” a statement from Ballad said. “Ballad Health continues to order additional supply, although at present additional supply is very limited.”
The NIH issued guidance for the prioritization of patients on Dec. 23 based on four factors: age, vaccination status, immune status and clinical risk factors. Tier one for treatment, for example, would be those with immunocompromising conditions regardless of vaccination status and unvaccinated people over 75 years old or over 65 years old with compounding risk factors.
Tier four, however, would include those who are vaccinated and at high risk for severe disease, which would be anyone older than 65 or those with clinical risk factors including cancer, chronic lung disease, obesity, pregnancy and sickle cell disease, among others.
While antibody treatments proved highly effective for those infected with previous coronavirus variants, mutations in the omicron variant have rendered most antibody treatments ineffective. Sotromivab is anticipated to be the most effective monoclonal antibody treatment against the omicron variant due to its mutations, but it is in short supply nationwide.
With omicron now the dominant variant in the region, it limits what monoclonal antibody treatment can be used to effectively treat infection. Ballad did recommend that those who are not eligible to receive the treatment ask their care provider if they qualify for other anti-viral treatments including Paxlovid and Molnupiravir — two anti-viral pills recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19 under an emergency use authorization.
“Ballad Health continues to advocate for vaccination and booster shots for all who are eligible,” the statement read. “Previously, those who chose not to vaccinate had a readily available supply of monoclonal antibodies in the event they were affected by the virus and had severe symptoms.
“With the supply of effective monoclonal antibodies being limited, or exhausted, vaccination becomes the best way to minimize the effect of the virus in the likely event a person is exposed,” it continued. “This virus is highly contagious, and the likelihood of exposure is very high, even if you are vaccinated. Ballad continues to see largely mild symptoms among people who are vaccinated.
“Until the supply of monoclonal antibodies becomes more readily available, Ballad Health is concerned that hospitalizations, and possibly deaths, will increase as a result of this shortage combined with low vaccination rates.”
Tennesseans will be getting new metal license plates this year when they renew their vehicle tags.
Washington County Clerk Kathy Storey said they are the first standard plates issued by the state in 16 years that feature a completely new design. The state made minor modifications to the 2006 plates in 2011, 2016 and 2017.
The new plates include the Tri-Star logo from the Tennessee flag and the name of the county where the vehicle is registered. Tennesseans can also ask for a version that includes the phrase, “In God We Trust.”
“We had them lined out the door on Monday,” Storey said remarking on the first day that they new plates were issued. “We’ve also had some people say they’d like to keep their old plates, but we can’t do that.”
Cheryl Storey, the chief deputy of the county clerk’s office, also noted there have been many who are pleased to see the new license plates.
“We’ve had people who wanted to know why it took so long for a change,” she said.
Under state law, Tennessee license plates are required to be redesigned every eight years if funds are approved by the state General Assembly to do so. The statute requires the design to display a geographical outline of Tennessee, as well as the words “Volunteer State” and “TNvacation.com” on the plates.
The new tags also have a spot for future renewal decals that will include the date and year they are issued.
Tennesseans will be required to obtain the new metal license plates when they are notified that their current tags are about to expire. They can renew in-person at their county clerk’s offices, by mail or online by going to www.tncountyclerk.com.
Those who do not renew in person will be charged a $5 mailing fee.