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Asphalt plant concerns brought before commission; looking to outside lawyer to research legalities on issue

By Jonathan Pleasant
The upper courtroom of the Johnson County courthouse was unusually crowded at last week’s county commission meeting. Dozens of concerned citizens from the Trade Community addressed the board with fears about the ongoing construction of Radford Quarry’s new asphalt plant adjacent to the Trade Volunteer Fire Department.
Dr. Richard Cochran, a veterinarian who resides on Bulldog Road near the construction site, came forward as the group’s unofficial speaker. Recognizing that the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) was the governing body that issued the permits to construct the plant, Cochran was particularly concerned with the fact that there were no public hearings or other indicators that the project was given approval before construction began.
County Mayor Larry Potter agreed that the construction caught everyone off guard, noting that TDEC had run a small ad in the local newspaper but for only one week. Both Potter and Chairman Freddy Phipps stated that they had been in touch with the state almost daily since the issue first arose a few weeks ago, and that Mayor Potter had made requests for a representative from TDEC to meet with county officials and address some of the citizens’ concerns. No one from the agency was present at the meeting, but Potter reiterated that he would continue in his efforts to have a meeting arranged.
What little information has been made available indicates that Radford has met all state requirements thus far, despite the fact that several citizens made comments about the company’s past reputation and environmentally destructive practices in both Johnson County and in North Carolina. Other concerns included disputes over the address of the site, which some claimed was different than that listed on TDEC’s permits. There were also points made about the increase of truck traffic on Highway 421 and the dangers that it could pose, as well as the damaging impact on the fire department, which is so close to the construction that it is now losing essential parking space.
Dr. Cochran questioned whether or not the company could even build without an Army Corps of Engineers permit on the grading and groundwork, considering that the project does disturb more than an acre. Turning back to the commission, there were also several comments made asking why the county had not already acted on the issue in an effort to prevent damage to the water and air quality of the Trade Community.
According to the commission, without any sort of county permitting or land use regulations, there is little that the governing body can actually do. Inspection and enforcement of environmental regulations falls to TDEC and the county cannot supersede the state on these types of issues. Regardless, Mayor Potter did note that there were several legal items that needed answering, prompting him to turn the debate over to county attorney Bill Cockett.
To the surprise of both the board and the audience, Cockett announced that he would not be able to provide the county legal advice on this issue due to the fact that he had a conflict of interest, having done deed work for Radford as a client. Because any action by the board could potentially do more harm than help without a legal understanding of what options exist, Commissioner Jonathan Pleasant made the motion to hire an outside lawyer for this specific problem.
Cockett pointed out that hiring an attorney would require a budget amendment, which would typically need to go through the county budget committee unless there was a separate two-thirds majority vote to suspend this rule. Commissioner Bill Adams made the motion to go ahead with the vote with the stipulation that the county pays up to a maximum of $5000, which easily passed with unanimous consent.
The other controversial issue of the evening concerned a request by Tim Peresada to alter the right-of-way on Lakeview Drive in Butler. Leasing a lot from owner Jay Peterson, Peresada is hoping to construct a house on the lake, but following multiple surveys discovered that the lot is almost entirely encompassed by a 100-foot right-of-way. With 75 additional feet on the other side of the road that is much more suitable for construction, Peresada argued that the county would benefit much more from allowing him space to build the house and add the new construction to the tax rolls than to maintain their current access to the property.
Having already brought the issue to the county planning commission several times without a definitive answer. it was suggested that the request come before the full board. Peresada noted that this same type of issue had already come up back in 1998 when the county sold a piece of right-of-way on a separate section of the same road. However, County Attorney Bill Cockett noted that following this decision the commission made an effort to prevent such action from happening again. Other right-of-way issues have occurred since then, but for the most part each was taken on a case by case basis typically with land swapped on the other side of the road.
Having looked into the subject, Cockett went on to pass out copies of the original engineering survey conducted by the TVA back in the late 1940s as they built Lakeview Drive. Cockett particularly noted that this specific section of the road was wider than most sections, pointing out several features on the drawing including an underground pipe that exists on the property.
Cockett argued that the TVA made the right-of-way 100 feet at this location to guarantee access to these pipes for a reason, and while he admitted that the steepness and narrowness of this side of the road would likely prevent it from becoming too involved in a future road widening project, the attorney did note his concerns about the potential for a slide and the county’s need to access the lot for repairs. Cockett went on to explain that even if the county did decide to give the right-of-way to Peresada as they did for the other land owner in the 1990s, it would likely have to be auctioned off as would any other county property.
Peresada made several points in contradiction, noting that he would sign any type of liability waiver the county required and would actually be stabilizing the bank by building a proposed retaining wall. Peresada also reiterated the fact that right now the land is of very little value to the county, but with the construction of the house there would be a new source of tax revenue. Having listened to the request and the advice of the county attorney, Chairman Freddy Phipps stated that he personally did not feel good making a decision without more time and information. With most of the commission in agreement no action was taken, but the subject will likely come up again next month.
Johnson County Community Hospital Director Lisa Heaton along with Jill Stott of Mountain States Health Alliance made an appearance before the commission to provide information concerning Tennessee’s upcoming decision over Medicare Expansion and to ask for support from the county. With the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act the federal government plans deep cuts in spending over the next 10 years. The initial plan was for these cuts to be offset by increases at the state level. However, following a recent decision by the Supreme Court, the original mandates that would require the states to expand their programs have become optional. This means that if the individual state chooses not to increase their spending to maintain current levels, federal cuts would take full affect and local hospitals and health systems would greatly suffer.
According to Stott,  Tenessee’s program expansion would be fully paid for by the federal government for the first three years, with at least 90% funded after that point. If the state, and Governor Bill Haslam in particular, do not agree to this arrangement, Tennessee faces 7.4 billion in funding cuts equaling a loss of more than 90,000 jobs.
In Johnson County alone the cuts would equal seven million dollars and a predicted 10 year loss of more than 51 jobs and a total economic impact of 8.8 million. Fearing a return back to a time when Johnson County had no local hospital, Heaton made a plea to the county to approve a letter to be sent to Gov. Haslam detailing the county’s support of Medicare Expansion.
For the rest of the story pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.