Town dropping state planners to hire its own

Friday, March 12, 2010

CHAPEL HILL -- Aldermen on Monday authorized the town administrator to tell the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development that they're canceling their contract for a planning and zoning consultant because it's not serving the town.

Other decisions made by the Chapel Hill Board of Mayor and Alderman at Police and Fire Department headquarters included: Postponing purchase of a fire truck and bidding a sewer extension; Renewing city insurance at a discounted premium; and setting 4 p.m. Tuesday for a budget meeting.

However, the decision to cancel a state contract has broader implications on how the community will appear and personal safety for residents through planning and construction rules.

Individual planners sent here to help officials deal with intricacies of zoning land for commercial and residential uses have been professional but, Town Administrator Mike Hatten explained, "This is the eighth planner we've been working with... The state planners are usually just out of college and we're just a stepping-stone" for their careers.

"It's not working out for us," the town administrator said.

Those several planning consultants have moved on to other jobs; some moving on to cities that have their own planning departments and some going to private engineering companies that have contracts with developers. Either way, Chapel Hill has been a real-life experience for young planners and it's created delays and other problems for the town.

The solution, Hatten said, is for Chapel Hill to join with Marshall County and its other municipalities to hire one full-time planner who would pay attention to just those areas. State consultants sent from the TDE&CD usually serve local governments in more than one county.

"The mayors of the JECDB are on-board with this," Hatten said of a local panel required by state law -- the Joint Economic and Community Development Board with an executive committee comprised of mayors for the county and its municipalities.

JECDB Executive Director Mike Wiles on Thursday elaborated on what Hatten told Chapel Hill's Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

One of the JECDB goals in its Three-Star Strategic Plan is to have a county-wide planner, Wiles said.

TDE&CD grades Three-Star Communities so there's justification for grants. Planning consultants, or in-house planers, address criteria for maintenance of the Three-Star status.

Under several town and county contracts for state planning consultants, Wiles said, "Some were using different planners and we felt it would be better for us to use the same planner with the same goals...

"We need to more forward the same way and together we can achieve our goals," he said noting one: uniform codes so they're more understandable to property owners and developers.

Hatten, County Building and Codes Director Don Nelson, Lewisburg Codes Officer Greg Lowe, Cornersville Town Manager Taylor Brandon, and Petersburg Planning Commissioner Corey Smith have been members of a committee working toward establishing a countywide planning officer, Wiles said.

Separately, he and Hatten said the consolidation of forces might result in lower costs. Wiles said that with one officer committed to the entire area, then the local governments would have more time to do projects with the same planner and accomplish shared goals.

One of the early steps - putting the TDE&CD Local Planning Office on notice that the local planning contract will be terminated - is being considered by the other local governmental panels, Hatten said.

"Our contract would end June 30," Hatten told Chapel Hill's town board.

Alderman Billy Batte then moved to authorize Hatten to notify the Local Planning Office of TDE&CD.

"Are we looking at someone local?" Alderwoman Miriam Joyce asked, and Hatten said if the plan proceeds as anticipated, then candidates would be interviewed.

Mayor Carl Cooper, a member of the JECDB Executive Committee, said the hiring decision would be complete with all governments in agreement.

Chapel Hill has been paying about $5,000 annually for state planning advice. Hatten estimated Lewisburg has paid $10,000 and Marshall County has paid $9,000.

Also Monday:

* Hatten reminded the board it wanted bids for purchase of a rescue truck. The best bid appeared to be about $95,000. Chapel Hill Lions offered to match up to $20,000. The town's financial viability was briefly discussed, but without specific answers, the board deferred on the purchase until a budget meeting was held.

* The town's consulting engineer was not in attendance, so discussion on calling bids for another sewer extension were postponed. The extension was sought by developers who wanted to build homes. While the housing slump wasn't mentioned, Bryant asked, "Is it going to be a dry line? And if they're not going to tap on, there's no reason to build it." The mayor pointed out that the town agreed to build the line, but Hatten noted developers haven deposited money for the project.

* Ray Edwards, vice president of the Powell & Meadows Insurance Agency in Lebanon, reported city insurance premiums were $46,615 last year and will be $44,730 this year. Coverage includes dishonest acts by employees, moral hazard, workers compensation, auto, flood, earthquake, property and liability including errors and omissions. So-called E&O insurance is "in case the board makes a decision that results in a lawsuit."