Plot thickens

Opinions, passions heat up as Blount Planning - Commission considers lifting building regulation

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By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

A Blount County Planning Commission regulation instituted in August of 2004 designed to alleviate school overcrowding by controlling new subdivisions in unincorporated areas is up for review on Dec. 12.

The regulation states that in any given year no individual can be allowed to sell more than four lots per plat in any given development where there is a school deemed "intolerable" by the county. Opinions on the regulation is divided. Some see it as a moratorium on building that hurts the economy. Others say it is a smart move that paces housing growth with the growth in infrastructure.

In talking with different individuals in the community, the tone of the comments get heated quickly. Developers claim the rule forces them to leave the county and will force first-time homeowners elsewhere because they won’t be able to purchase newly-built homes since the available properties will be too expensive. Those in favor of the regulation are say the county has for far too long been controlled by developers and that any new building only profits "fat cat" developers.

While school officials are asking that the regulation be held in place until they can alleviate overcrowding when they get two more schools on line, others say the move could cripple an industry that makes up a large portion of the county’s economy.

Blount Today spoke with builders, school officials and community activists to get the pulse of an argument that could define the economy of the county for several years.

The regulation as it initially was created tied approval for new subdivisions 100 percent to school availability. "If the school board says a school is intolerable, or has too many students in the school for capacity, then the subdivision would not be approved," builder Bruce Hayes said.

Under threat of legal action from builders, the planning commission came back with the four lots per plat per year rule. This
still didn’t sit well with builders. "If you took them a 180-lot subdivision, you could only build on four lots a year, which means all the developers quit," Hayes said. "The profit off four lots per year, even in a small subdivision, would not make interest payments. Financially, it’s impossible."

According to County Mayor Jerry Cunningham, the regulation could be seen in two ways. "I don’t know whether it was to control growth or squelch growth. There’s a fine line. I hear it was to squelch growth," he said. "Interestingly, many who support the moratorium are retired persons who moved in here and who have no children here and could care less about the affordability of housing for young families with children. Their motives are purely self-centered and have nothing to do with sensible growth. Interestingly, these people will not want to pay any share of infrastructure improvements they cry wolf about."

Planning Commission chairman Jim Scully said he agreed with the ordinance when it was first proposed, but has since changed his mind. "At the beginning it sounded like a good idea to get the ball rolling with the school board, but the school board didn’t do anything in my eyes to help alleviate the overcrowding," he said. "They got six new schools in seven years.

They didn’t exhaust their options. The county is hurting for money. I pushed for the schools to help alleviate the overcrowding."

Scully said schools director Alvin Hord didn’t do enough to address overcrowding before expecting the planning commission to act. He said Hord could have been done more in speaking with growing towns around the county like Louisville and Maryville and the school system could have redistricted students to lesser crowded schools. They also could have used state criteria to determine overcrowding instead of the standard set in such places as Washington, D.C., Washington state and Chicago, Scully said.

When questioned about redistricting, Hord said the move wasn’t as easy as some would like. In some cases, getting a required number of students redistricted would mean affecting residents in large areas because fewer people live in some of the more rural areas of the county.

Louisville resident and Citizens for Better Government group leader Jim Folts said the regulation was a good idea. "If you read the planning documents the county puts out, it states the purpose of planning is to make sure the infrastructure is in place to support growth, and you don’t have growth without infrastructure," he said. "Given that that’s the purpose, the four lot limit was an attempt to bring the rate of growth into harmony with the growth of the infrastructure. As far as we are concerned, we don’t see any other issue."

Louisville resident Joe Gallagher said the moratorium should continue, considering the infrastructure needs of the county. "Yes, I think that building residential development at a pace where we don’t have room for the school children in our schools is foolish," he said.

Blount County School Board chairman Mike Treadway said the board recently directed him to write a letter encouraging the commission to keep the regulation in place. "It was a good thing they had it in place, especially in areas of intolerable schools, because we were already overcrowded, and the more people we put in a school made a bad situation worse," he said.

Builder Bob Reed said the move was more about slowing growth than addressing school overcrowding, which could have been done without slowing growth.

"I just don’t think that was the way to go about it," he said. "The effect of what they did was way worse than what they accomplished. They used that for an excuse to shut down building, which wasn’t really their problem."

Cunningham said tying subdivision approvals to school numbers isn’t good and allowing only four lots per plat per year isn’t feasible. "You can’t put together a development and do the debt service by only being allowed four lots a year. We have to create places for people to live. How do you control it?" he said.

Cunningham said the formulas used to determine overcrowding weren’t viable and said every school in Knoxville would be deemed intolerable under the Blount County schools standards.

"With the freshmen academies (at Heritage and William Blount high schools) coming on, I think the overcrowding situations are going to be taken care of for up to nine years," he said.

Cunningham said enforcing school zoning policies by making children attend schools in their zone also could help with overcrowding. "You’ve got vacancies and classes at some schools and at some you don’t," he said.

Folts said planners can have a lot of influence over what growth occurs based on how they market the area. Blount County could market itself more as a retirement area as Loudon County apparently has done and encouraged the growth of retirement communities.

Treadway said the planning commission’s job is to plan for growth and how the infrastructure can handle it, while the school board’s job is to look out for the well being of the children at the schools.

"We believe overcrowding affects the overall quality of education in any school," he said.

Hord said planning takes commitment. "With growth, there needs to be a commitment from everyone in the county to take care of growth," he said. "You can’t stop (growth), and when you do, there are repercussions."

Scully said that regardless of whether the regulations was lifted or left in place, schools have to be built, and people need places to live. Out of the 823 lots approved before the moratorium, the builders were complaining a year ago that there were no jobs for them, he said.

"Out of all those lots approved, how many are actually are built out? Maybe 40 percent have been built," he said. "There are still plenty of lots to be built on. I go out to every subdivision that comes up before every meeting and walk them and bring up questions at the (planning commission) meetings."

Reed said controlling the number of students in schools by controlling the number of people moving into the area is a fallacy.
"All they achieved is raising the prices of lots in Blount County," he said. "All they’ve done is make it more difficult for first-time home buyers and low income families to afford homes. The lots are in short supply because there are so few they can develop. Developers aren’t going to develop just four lots."

Cunningham said the regulation has hurt Blount and helped other counties.

"It has been a shot of arm in the economies of neighboring counties and stymied the economy here, in my opinion," he said.
Folts disagreed with the idea the ordinance was a moratorium. "I don’t consider it a moratorium. Nobody said you can’t build," he said. "That would be a moratorium."

According to Folts, builders make their money from building houses and it’s not particularly critical where they build them in the county. "The only economy it affects is a few fat-cat developers who own land where the four lot limit applies, and they are the people unhappy," he said.

Treadway said he couldn’t say how the ordinance has affected the economy.

"If you don’t have all those infrastructure things in place, if you don’t have adequate utilities, adequate educational opportunities for kids, if you don’t have a suitable housing, that makes it difficult for Blount County to entice industry," he said. "If you have a loss of industry in your community, that creates a situation where you have a stagnant economy."

Treadway said the board requested that the commission continue the four lot moratorium until such time as they can get the west side elementary and middle schools on line. "We’ve got them under contract," he said. "They’re not built yet, but they’re going to be built. It will be two years before they will be up and running. The board is asking them to hold it for two more years until these schools are up."

Hayes said Market Edge, a firm out of Knoxville that tracks building trends and permit reports for 18 counties in East Tennessee, showed him who was getting the bulk of building business coming from Blount County.

"The big winner on this whole thing is Monroe County. They won. Their construction is up 30 percent," Hayes said. "Everybody here said, ‘We’ll just move down the road.’ "

Realtor Martha Lou McCampbell said development will continue to leave Blount County. "Those who own land who already have subdivisions in place will benefit, and they will reap the benefit of high prices. It makes it hard to buy. It becomes more and more unaffordable," she said.

Gallagher said the economy would benefit from the regulation. "It benefits the county because, as taxpayers, we’re not put in the position of having to pay more taxes to meet the required infrastructure, including the new schools and other
infrastructures required, like roads," he said.

Hayes said the end result to the consumer is they’ll continually be asked to pay higher prices for land because there’s not enough supply for the demand. "The developer gets to name his own price," he said.

Cunningham reiterated the fact he is dedicated to creating affordable and available homes for Blount County families. "I have no desire to turn Blount County into a retirement Mecca. I have seen too many comfortable retirees who made a living elsewhere, had other citizens’ taxes in other states educate their children, move here because of all we offer and not be willing to pay a nickel to watch an earthquake," Cunningham said. "They could care less about young families. They have their livings made and do not feel the obligation I feel as a life-long Blount Countian to help educate my fellow Blount Countians’ children and to provide them an affordable place to live."

The discussion will take place at the next Blount County Planning Commission meeting at 5 p.m. on Dec. 12 in Room 430 of the Blount County Courthouse.

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