(An essay in which we consider Trickle-Down Housing Theory)
Everybody knows we are in a housing crisis. We see heartbreaking stories about families sleeping in their car because they cannot afford rent; children farmed out to relatives while their parents search for a safe, affordable place to call home. We also see landlord-posted advertisements for two-bedroom houses priced at $1,800 to $2,200 per month.
Rent has become more expensive than many mortgages.
So, it ticks me off when I hear politicians claim that the solution to our housing problems is allowing developers to cram more houses onto ever smaller lots in Hardin Valley. That’s the worst kind of abracadabra, but it’s the excuse Mayor Glenn Jacobs presented at a county commission workshop May 16.
Jacobs wants to eliminate the county’s BZA from hearing use-on-review appeals. Don’t like the planning commission’s decision? Go straight to court, he says. It will speed up the process toward solving the housing crisis; and besides, the chancellor who will hear the appeals is an elected official – same argument he used for de-commissioning the county board of health. Who wants to listen to a bunch of doctors talk about communicable diseases when we could get our marching orders from Justin Biggs?
But I digress.
Both the city and the county have a Board of Zoning Appeals – a quasi-judicial body of citizens to whom decisions of the planning commission can be appealed.
There is a big (and soon to grow even bigger) difference between the two jurisdictions.
Disputes inside the city are heard by the planning board, appealed to the BZA and, if unresolved, move on to city council, whose decisions are appealable to Chancery Court.
County commission has long since removed itself from the use-on-review process, so disputes outside the city limits now go straight from the planning body to the BZA and then to court.
Thus, city property owners seeking use-on-review protection have three opportunities to present their case – to the planning body, to BZA and to city council. Taking it to court is a last, expensive resort.
County residents are soon to have only one path if Mayor Jacobs’ plan is approved. Appeal the planning commission straight to court.
The politics of this
Jacobs’ proposition is sponsored by lame-duck Commissioner Randy Smith, who is a county employee, which means Jacobs is his boss. The resolution is on the agenda for the Monday, May 23, county commission meeting, and since it was approved by a 10-1 vote at the commission’s planning session this week, it’s a sure bet to be approved. (Commissioner John Schoonmaker was the only dissenting vote.)
Law Director David Buuck, when asked to respond to Schoonmaker’s concern that this change will impose an unnecessary financial hardship on county property owners who will be forced to hire lawyers to represent them in court, said there’s no problem, since the court’s $259 filing fee is just $59 more than BZA’s fee. He also said lawyers won’t be necessary, since judges will simply read the files and decide based on the facts presented.
Buuck said this with a straight face.
(I asked a source who is deeply experienced in land-use issues if it’s necessary to hire a lawyer to appeal a use-on-review case to Chancery Court: His answer: “Only if you want to win.”)
Why it’s a bad idea
Buuck’s performance didn’t sit well with longtime public citizen Carlene Malone, who served 10 years on city council and has been holding elected officials accountable for four decades. I asked what she thought of this move. Here’s what she said:
“This is blatant reduction of public participation and a real kick in the teeth of county residents outside the city. For Buuck and Jacobs to say that the financial burden of an appeal to the BZA versus an appeal to Chancery Court is the same is a blatant lie, and if county commissioners don’t know this, they ought to resign. Because they have no understanding of government and the challenges of being a responsible citizen.
“I’m sick and tired of everyone except a very few – and good for Schoonmaker – being accepting of lies because it’s too impolite to ask, ‘What are you saying?’ Those commissioners hold a position of trust, and if somebody misleads them, it is their job to say, ‘Wait a minute.’ We need to be very clear about the financial burden.”
Smith, who will be term-limited out of office Sept. 1, apologized to his colleagues for a drafting error that made the first version of his resolution rather confusing. He said he was in a hurry to get it done. But why is it being done in such haste?
I have a two-word answer:
Frazier is the Republican nominee for one of the two at-large commission seats that will be filled come the August general election. And since Republicans are heavily favored in county races, she is the prohibitive favorite to be sworn in Sept. 1. She beat Jacobs’ hand-picked candidate, Devin Driscoll, who received large sums of developer money. I figured it might be good to ask what she thinks of this move.
Imagine I’m saying this next paragraph in my best Gomer Pyle:
Surprise, surprise – she doesn’t approve. She thinks that Jacobs should have left this matter to the fancy planning board he created to deliberate such matters, and to which he (to his probable everlasting chagrin) appointed Frazier as a member.
This proposal “should be reviewed as part of the Advance Knox work like all other land-use processes,” said Frazier.
She didn’t say, ‘See ya in September,’ but Gomer’s smarter than he sounds and knows how to read between the lines.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.