County growth plan hearing focused on Chapel Hill

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Opposition to a 20,300-acre urban growth area around Chapel Hill was heard again last week at a public hearing conducted to receive comments on the plan developed for the rest of the unincorporated areas of Marshall County.

"These are serious and important decisions because they affect all of us who call Marshall County home," said Joe Coble, chairman of the county's Coordinating Committee empaneled last fall to orchestrate meetings, hearings and discussion for a revised 20-year growth plan.

The plan is in response to Lewisburg's request to modify the state-required grow-th plans throughout the county. Reactions focused on the fact that land beyond an urban growth boundary can't be annexed. So, property owners conclude, if their land is included, it's a step toward annexation and municipal property taxes. It's not necessarily so, although that's the perception, or fear.

"Chapel Hill drew it larger than it has to be," said David Wilson of Smiley Road north of the Marshall County town, and Matthew Hopkins came from his Mealer Road home between Chapel Hill and the Bedford County line to say, "The plan is too large." Others expressed similar sentiments.

However, Chapel Hill Mayor Carl Cooper has replied, it's a 20-year plan, the future is unpredictable, and the town board adopted a resolution saying it won't annex anything unless there's a request from property owners.

"This is a legal document," Cooper said of the resolution after the hearing in the Marshall County Courthouse, attended by nearly 55 people, many against any plan that would put their land in an urban growth area where annexation is permitted."

"We're not going to go out and work up some deal to pickup farmland unless they ask for it, or if there's a reason for it to be done," Cooper said when asked about the preponderance of public comment on his town's urban growth plan.

Town officials have explained that a reason to annex land without a request might include subdivision developments that are so close to town that they get city services and to be sure that utilities are installed according to municipal standards.

Marshall County Commissioner Mary Ann Neill was appointed by Coble to explain what the county's done. Counties designate planned growth areas, a phrase to distinguish territories where more homes and businesses are anticipated in unincorporated parts of the count that are unaffected by municipalities' urban growth areas.

Facing a crowd of more than four dozen people, and holding a microphone from the prosecutor's table in the circuit courtroom, Neill sought to lighten the mood.

"I feel tempted to break into karaoke," the commissioner said, although she successfully resisted the opportunity to sing for the crowd.

"We've reduced our areas tremendously," Neill said, in an apparent reference to Chapel Hill officials' reduction of their original plan to increase the current growth area from 867 acres to 33,818 acres.

The reduction to Chapel Hill's growth area was by some 13,500 acres. The reduction is by about 40 percent, although much of it is north and west of the town, not on the eastern side. The town's growth area still goes all the way to the Bedford County line.

Lewisburg has reduced its proposed urban growth area, and the county has modified its planned growth areas to include what Lewisburg and Chapel Hill trimmed from their proposals.

While annexation remains prohibited in those county planned growth areas, there are different land use zoning regulations that apply to the county's growth areas.

"As we deliberate the presentation," Chairman Coble said of the coordinating committee's eventual debate and vote on a recommendation, "the remarks you make ... are very important to us."

The original 20-year plan was accepted by the state in May 2000. That was in conjunction with a state law enacted in the late 1990s after the Tennessee Supreme Court struck down the so-called Tiny Towns Law as unconstitutionally vague. Tiny towns with few people were being planned, or incorporated by rural residents using the law to prevent annexation by larger cities. Some towns emerged without property taxes and hardly any municipal services, or employees.

Lewisburg sought to reopen the 20-year plan for Marshall County because its leaders realized mistakes had been made, areas were left out that should have been included and last year the county and its municipalities agreed to participate in the process of amending the plan.

Neill said part of the city's industrial park was left out of the growth plan, and she explained the state law calls for growth areas to be reasonably compact, but large enough for 20 years of growth.

"Every body is a little more aggressive," Neill said of the municipalities' decision to have more land that's subject to annexation, because ... if you don't use it, there's no penalty, but if you do include it [a larger area] then it's available."

Greg Holton, a Chapel Hill-area resident and businessman, said during the hearing that there as been conflict over water service areas between Chapel Hill and the Marshall County Public Utilities Board.

Bob Binkley, a member of the coordinating committee, replied, "Whether the county builds water lines is not a topic for this committee" which doesn't control water service decisions.

Several people spoke against Chapel Hill's plan, complaining that the town's mayor controlled hearings in Forrest School too much, refusing to hear comments from people who didn't live in the proposed growth area, and asking area residents to state their positions, yes or no, to town officials, so people lined up as if to vote.

Thursday night remarks from Charles Blackwell of Blackwell Road seemed to characterize some of the public sentiment.

"If I remember my history, there were 13 colonies who had a war over taxation without representation," he said, despite the fact that municipal property taxes wouldn't begin just because a property is in a growth area.

More town and county meetings and hearings are required before the growth plans for Marshall County and its municipalities can be ready to be sent to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.