Sullivan may sue city over Fall Creek annexation

J. H. Osborne • Feb 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County commissioners have scheduled a special called meeting to consider court action to fight Kingsport’s recent “Chase Meadows” annexation in the Fall Creek area.

They’ve set the date for next week. But some longtime commissioners say the move instead charts a course toward yesteryear — the annexation-lawsuit-prone early 1990s, to be exact.

Thirteen commissioners signed a request to make the called meeting happen. That’s the minimum number required for such a move. They set the time and date for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 28, chosen to make sure there’s ample time for public notice as required by state law.

Their written request came near the end of the Sullivan County Commission’s monthly meeting Tuesday.

Commissioners who signed in favor of the called meeting are Garth Blackburn, Linda Brittenham, Moe Brotherton, Darlene Calton, Clyde Groseclose, Terry Harkleroad, Jon Harr, Dennis Houser, Sam Jones, John McKamey, Randy Morrell, Pat Patrick (appointed to the commission seat of her late husband Howard earlier in the day) and Michael Surgenor.

The move came after a lengthy discussion of a proposal to appropriate $25,000 and direct County Attorney Dan Street to mount a legal battle to stave off Kingsport’s entree into Fall Creek.

Street told the commission the county has “no standing, at this point in time,” which in legal speak means the county has no right to sue in the matter.

The Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved the Chase Meadows annexation on Feb. 5. The annexation becomes effective in 30 days, barring a successful challenge.

Surgenor and Harkleroad sponsored the proposal to fund a county-led challenge of the annexation, as sought by members of a group of Fall Creek residents who have petitioned against it.

None of the group opposing the annexation owns property being annexed.

Two organizers of that group spoke to the commission during public comment Tuesday, and again late in the afternoon as the issue neared a potential vote.

They likened the city’s reaching into Fall Creek to “the fox in the henhouse.”

Kim Pruden said she’s met with various Kingsport officials over a four-month period, had hoped to “get some sense knocked into” some BMA members and City Manager John Campbell — but hadn’t found success.

Both Pruden and Judy Godat said legal intervention by the county is their group’s only chance to fight City Hall.

Street disagreed, saying the group’s members could hire private attorneys.

Much of the group’s challenge of the Chase Meadows annexation hinges on interpretation of Tennessee’s “Smart Growth” law, better known today by its legislative designation, Public Chapter 1101 (PC1101).

State lawmakers penned PC1101 in the late 1990s in answer to city-county annexation squabbles statewide.

Sullivan County, at the time, had filed several annexation lawsuits against its cities, and Commissioner Mark Vance said Tuesday’s discussion took him back to a time he’d rather not revisit.

“Fourteen years ago we were sitting here discussing lawsuits,” Vance said. “I have a problem going back in history to a point where the county was spending money to sue the cities.”

It created a very negative atmosphere where “everything locked up” as far a local cooperation was concerned, Vance said.

“Nothing positive happens when governments start suing each other,” Vance said, adding he couldn’t support using taxpayer dollars — generated in part by city residents and businesses — to pay for such a maneuver, which would basically make city taxpayers pay to sue themselves.

Commissioner Buddy King echoed Vance’s statements.

“It’s time for us to represent 153,000 people — the whole county, city residents and non-city residents alike,” King said. “Why would we want to appropriate any amount of money to sue the city? If it wasn’t for the cities, what would we have? What does the county have to offer anybody? We don’t have water. We don’t have sewer. We don’t have any utilities.”

Brotherton said King was missing the point — that Kingsport has broken state law in more ways than one with its Chase Meadows annexation.

Commissioner Bill Kilgore said he was among county officials who attended the BMA meeting the night the annexation was approved — and BMA debate before that vote left him confident the city was careful to make sure the annexation was in fact legal.

PC1101 required each county in the state, in cooperation with its cities, to develop a 20-year growth plan. The County Commission approved Sullivan County’s plan in 2001.

“This battle was fought seven years ago,” Street said.

If Surgenor and Harkleroad’s proposal had made it to a vote Tuesday — and the vote was called for at one point — it would have required 16 “yes” votes for approval. That’s because it was considered new business, having just been introduced. As the near-vote was about to be taken, someone pointed out only 18 commissioners were present — not counting Commissioner Eddie Williams, who was acting as commission chairman after Mayor Steve Godsey was called away on a family emergency.

Surgenor then produced the written request for a called meeting. If the issue comes for a vote next week, it will be considered “old business” and as such require only 13 “yes” votes for approval.

If approved, the commission would authorize and direct Street “to institute prior to March 6, in any court of competent jurisdiction, any legal proceedings necessary and appropriate to challenge the legality of the (Chase) Meadows annexation, including without limitation, the constitutionality of Public Chapter 1101” and that in doing so Street be authorized “to join any action brought by any other county in the state” and be further authorized to hire other lawyers or experts to assist him in the work.

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