Commissioners talk airstrips, erosion control

Blount County commissioners opted not to take action on a private air strip being built near a subdivision in Seymour and, depending on which side of the issue people stood, either strengthened property owners rights or scaled back provisions protecting streams from sedimentation due to grading or erosion.

The commissioners discussed an airstrip being built near Jeffries Hollow Road by Dennis Weaver of Seymour and concerns neighbors had that the strip would end about 40 yards from their home.

Commissioner Ron French moved to have a motion for action regarding private airstrips sent back to the planning commission because of a discrepancy in the way permits were obtained based, he indicated, on his conversations with the Federal Aviation Administration.

French asked that a 90-day moratorium be placed on building at any existing landing strip in Blount County. “Ninety days should be ample time to draw up regulations. I move we put a moratorium on the construction of landing strips until we have regulations in place.”

Commissioner Bob Proffitt said the landing strip is unsafe for neighbors and for pilots because it is so close to houses. Commissioner Monika Murrell agreed. “Just using common sense, it seems there would be safety issues,” she said.

Commissioner Scott Helton asked French if he understood the legal ramifications. “If we place a moratorium and stop private air strips, we are looking at the possibility of lawsuits,” he said.

Kenneth Melton asked if the commission could do that. “Do we have the authority?” he said.

County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said commissioners did not. “It’s my opinion, you’re buying yourselves a lawsuit,” he said.

French reiterated he only wanted time for the planning commission to create new regulations but that this wasn’t for the grass landing strip being planned for Seymour. “I’m not asking you to rezone it so he can’t build this landing strip, just stop for 90 days to come up with regulations,” he said.

The mayor said it would be a question for a chancery or circuit judge to decide on stopping construction at the landing strip. “It would take a motion asking the court to seek injunctive relief to enforce the moratorium,” he said.

Commissioners voted to send the item back to planning commission to create new regulations but did not choose to create a moratorium.

Commissioners also considered a motion to increase from 1/10th of an acre to 1 acre the amount of property in which a permit is necessary before property owners are allowed to disturb their land. The new regulations would only affect the urbanized areas of Blount County.

Prior to voting and during public input for items on the agenda, several spoke up regarding both the airstrip and the regulations guarding disturbing property.

Larry Shore said he was concerned about passing any resolution taking property owner’s rights away from them. “Property in Blount County is not cheap. We pay taxes on it. I just think that puts more restrictions on it. We have zoning laws that prevent someone from doing something abusive to neighbor’s property or the environment,” he said. “Most people will take care of their own property.”

Shore said property owners don’t need more government control telling them what to do and how to do it. “Is this a way to create more government jobs in the county? I think it’s a big mistake,” he said. “It’s going to be costly to taxpayers.”

Cathy Rhodes, executive director of the Little River Watershed Association, said the nation’s entire network of rivers, lakes and streams originate from a myriad of small wetlands and streams. “These are small streams, and we exercise critical influence on downstream waters, she said.

Rhodes said the streams, wetlands and waterways mitigate flooding, maintain water quality, recycle nutrients and provide habitat for plants and animals. Small streams usually are connected through groundwater. Any change in one part of a stream can effect it downstream and cause poor water quality or poor water flow, she said.

“I urge the commission to consider the consequences of altering stormwater regulation. Many actions detrimental to drinking water would occur without oversight,” Rhodes said. “Now is the opportunity to be leaders. I have a right to clean water and air. As commissioners, you have a job to protect the rights of everyone.”

Blount County Planner John Lamb said commissioners should consider water quality in the whole county and that even disturbances of 1/10th of an acre can cause sedimentation in streams. “Do not take a step back from water quality and our ability to address errors in the whole county,” he said. “I urge you to support provisions of a 1/10th of an acre and provide covering for the whole county.”

Gary Ferguson with the Environmental Health Department defended stormwater coordinator Justin Teague, the individual charged with ensuring the county’s regulations are in compliance with state law.

Ferguson said 10,000 new homes have been built since 1995 in Blount County. “We say we want property rights respected, and I’m a property owner myself so I understand,” he said. “I think public scrutiny of government is important. Justin Teague hasn’t intentionally misled or deceived anybody.”

Ferguson said the stormwater program is a federally-mandated program. “I can say one thing: Since we started the stormwater program in 2004, what Mr. Teague is saying is nothing is new,” he said. “We’ve been doing the same thing with very few complaints from builders and contractors. We’re not doing anything new. It’s on the table now, and it’s open, and there is a lot of concern, and it’s worth it.”

In the end, commissioners voted in favor of the increase to 1 acre the amount of property owners can disturb on their land without a permit. The new regulations would only affect the urbanized areas of Blount County.

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