BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Commission voted Tuesday to seek a change in state law to give County Mayor Steve Godsey the authority to appoint county representatives to Kingsport’s and Bristol’s regional planning commissions.
An amendment to the measure directs Godsey also to concurrently seek cooperation with the cities on the issue — and their compliance could mean a withdrawal of the county’s request to state lawmakers.
Each city’s regional planning commission has planning authority over areas outside their city boundaries. The planning boundaries extend to areas designated in state law — and agreed to by county officials about eight years ago — as “urban growth boundaries” (UGBs).
A city’s UGB is an area into which the city could be expected to grow under a 20-year comprehensive, countywide “Smart Growth” plan approved years ago by the county and each of its cities. Areas within a UGB are subject to annexation at the city’s discretion. The planning authority of city regional planning commissions, across the state, was extended to cover each city’s UGB so development of those areas — which could be annexed — will match planning guidelines of the city in question.
Some county officials and residents have complained this makes those non-city property owners (within the city’s UGB) subject to rules on which they have no input — because as county residents, they have no elected representatives in city government.
Last year a state law made it a requirement for city regional planning commissions to have members appointed who are residents of that city’s UGB. The number of such members is based on the size of the regional planning commission in question. In the case of Kingsport and Bristol, the number of county representatives required is now two.
Locally, city officials have held the authority to appoint members of their city’s regional planning commission — and the state law enacted last year didn’t mention any change in that practice.
But Sullivan County commissioners want it to change. They want the county to have the authority to appoint the non-city members that are required for city regional planning commissions. A resolution to ask state lawmakers to make it so was approved unanimously by the 22 of the county’s 24 commissioners present for a vote Tuesday.
One of the measure’s primary sponsors, Commissioner Terry Harkleroad described it as “a common-sense resolution for the county.”
“It’s very simple. We allow the cities to appoint their representatives on our (planning) commission), and it just seems fair to me that we should have that same option,” Harkleroad said.
He and other sponsors of the move said they asked for a vote on the issue Tuesday — it hadn’t been seen, publicly, by commissioners before — because immediate action was needed if the Tennessee General Assembly is to consider the issue this session.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey recommended the commission act on the resolution, co-sponsor Moe Brotherton said, in order to get it to Nashville by Jan. 31 to assure it be considered by the legislature this session.
Commissioner Joe Herron asked if the effort’s success would in essence “force” Kingsport to abide by the commission’s wishes on the issue.
Several commissioners, from both the “upper” and “lower” ends of the county — including Herron and James L. King, from the Kingsport end, and Linda Brittenham and Buddy King from the Bristol end — suggested broaching the topic with Kingsport officials before seeking state intervention.
Brittenham said Kingsport and Bristol officials should be asked simply to show “mutual respect” and allow the county to make the appointments.
Buddy King said he didn’t like the idea of going to the state first, rather than trying to work together locally.
“I don’t like this trying to cram something down somebody’s throat and not ask them their opinion on it,” he said.
Brotherton said county commissioners who attended a Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting earlier this month “weren’t treated like elected officials.”
“We want to work with people, but it’s a one-way street. We have no say, whatsoever,” Brotherton said.
Sponsorship of the resolution was prompted, in part, by concerns that there’s a pro-annexation litmus test of sorts for membership on Kingsport’s Regional Planning Commission, said Harkleroad.
“Right now the criteria for ... Kingsport, (Mayor Dennis Phillips) indicated the only ones that can sit on their regional planning commission, the number one criteria is they have to be for annexation. We feel like that’s not fair because the voice for the county of maintaining not to approve annexation is not a voice there. We’d just like an equal voice, to get the county’s side point of view to that regional commission.”
Contacted by the Times-News by telephone Tuesday afternoon, Phillips said he has never told any county commissioner that in order to be a member of the Planning Commission, you have to be pro-annexation.
“In order to be a member of the Planning Commission — or any other commission I have the responsibility of appointing — you have to be open-minded and willing to listen to reason,” Phillips said.
As far as the county asking for a change in state law, Phillips said “I don’t like to see any legislation passed in the heat of battle. I think it puts our state representatives and senator in a very, very bad situation when you start asking for things like this to be done. This was all gone through in the urban growth (discussions). The boundaries were not established without an enormous amount of work, discussion and compromise, and we thought that would solve some of these problems. I think everyone was told if you live within the urban growth boundary, there is a possibility of being annexed.”
Some county commissioners, however, said county officials were misled or uninformed during the lengthy Smart Growth process — particularly not knowing regional planning commissions would later gain planning authority over urban growth areas.
“We didn’t really understand what was happening,” Commissioner Sam Jones said. “There were a lot of unclear statements.”
Ambre Torbett, the county’s planning director, said it would be “a nightmare” if the urban growth boundaries had not become regional planning boundaries — and that she has documentation showing county officials were invited, by city officials, to attend meetings in Nashville to talk about that change when it was proposed.
Phillips said he has a great relationship with Godsey and tries to keep all communication lines open.
“If the mayor wants to sit down and discuss people living in the urban growth boundary being on the Planning Commission, that’s fine,” Phillips said. “If there is some anti-, one-opinion group that wants to ensure they can put someone on the Planning Commission who is anti-city with the sole purpose of being on the Planning Commission, then I would have a problem with that.”
In other business Tuesday, the County Commission approved appointment of a special committee to study a proposed property tax “freeze” for homeowners over 65 with annual incomes of $28,750 or less. That group is to report its findings next month.
Times-News staff writer Matthew Lane contributed to this report.