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Planning Commission aims for improved service

Newly elected Chairman Pat Wolfe said the biggest objective of the Washington County Regional Planning Commission is to make it easier for builders and developers to do business locally.
Wolfe hosted a workshop Dec. 15 at the request of county commissioners who wanted to learn more about planning and zoning regulations.
Zoning Office Chief Deputy Chris Pape explained the topics addressed by the planning commissions in Washington County, Jonesborough and Johnson City. The three bodies hear items primarily related to applications for rezoning, amendments to subdivision regulations and variance requests.
Pape led attendees through the process followed from the date an application is submitted to the final vote from the county commission, whose members can approve, deny or return the request to the appropriate planning commission.
Commissioner Matthew Morris asked why Johnson City and Washington County have different zoning districts, and Pape said each entity creates its own list. “They are allowed to have as many or as few (districts) as they choose,” he added.
Morris wondered if there is a possibility the two would ever combine their assigned definitions and uses, but Pape said it’s important to remember the city and county are dealing with different population densities and utilities.
“The county also has more of an interest in preserving agricultural areas,” said Ross Phillips, a community planner employed by the First Tennessee Development District. Phillips provides recommendations on rezoning requests to Washington County on a contract basis.
Phillips said amendments to subdivision ordinances can be approved by the WCRPC, but amendments to zoning regulations are required by go before the county commission for a decision.
“In general, (a use) is only permitted in a zoning district if it is explicitly listed,” he said, making a point to explain pyramid zoning. “Anything in R-1 can be done in R-2.”
Wolfe asked the zoning staff to explain how they would handle a call from a resident who complains a neighbor is not keeping his property clean.
Pape said after the parcel is identified, the general welfare and safety officer for property and dwellings visits the site to gather more information, and a decision is made to either send a citation to the owner or, in the case of a repeat offender, refer the problem to the Environmental Court.
“Hopefully, with the Environmental Court cases will move a lot faster,” Wolfe said.
Tim Hicks, a new member of the WCRPC, asked if members of the planning commission and the county commission still worked together to recruit new businesses.
Wolfe explained those functions now fall under the Washington County Economic Development Council, which includes representatives from the city and county, and has proven to be a more effective structure.
Vice Chair Mark Larkey said the zoning office offers additional benefits. “As a county commissioner who represents primarily county residents, zoning is the only enforcement to concerns, but it has been extremely valuable to county residents,” he said.
Wolfe asked those present to share the goals of the new planning commission. “As you interact with the public, encourage them that our main objective is to make it easy to do business in Washington County.”