By: Mark Hudson
Source: Loudon County News-Herald
Although the majority of initial citizen response to Lenoir City’s downtown redevelopment and urban renewal plan has been largely negative, the chairman of the group charged with working on the plan said he believes those opinions are changing as the public begins to better understand the proposal.
"I think part of the reaction is due to the fact there’s been a lot of press recently about eminent domain, and it’s been basically negative press," Committee Chairman Mike Lawson said.
He noted at a recent public hearing focusing on the plan "someone was handing out a paper that had some false information on it, or even misleading information … I think that didn’t serve the public well."
Lawson attributed a great deal of the negative reaction to the public’s lack of knowledge concerning the plan. "It was just a general overall misunderstanding I think, or maybe a lack of understanding about what the proposed plan is," he said. Lawson pointed out many of the citizen comments at the public hearing were related to codes enforcement.
"I think the public has a misunderstanding of codes enforcement vs. redevelopment (and) how the two actually work together," he noted. "I thought the turnout was very good. The people that turned out were obviously the people who were most concerned about their property, but I think what we didn’t see were all the other voters that didn’t show up who perhaps supported it and didn’t show up because they supported it," Lawson said of the public hearing.
Speaking of the public’s response, he added, "the reaction is pretty much what I expected, but I also think that people have a better understanding of it now and are more open to the idea."
Lawson noted the redevelopment committee had not yet formally discussed changing the plan. He noted many committee members were not present at the hearing and only recently received a transcript of the comments made. Still, Lawson noted the committee "was not closed to any changes that may be forthcoming."
One possible change Lawson spoke of was a prioritization of the properties targeted for redevelopment. "I think we just need some further definition when we talk about scale. Maybe put in a priority scale … prioritize the areas we really want to look at," he said. Lawson noted one of the reasons the committee chose such a large area for the plan was to save time. "Administratively, by defining the area as large as we did, what we were trying to do is to minimize a lot of the administration of having to do that each and every time," he said.
In reference to complaints the plan was nothing more than a "land grab," Lawson said, "that’s clearly not the case." He stressed legislators had reinforced state law "to absolutely prohibit the taking of private property for private redevelopment … that could happen … but we’d all be spending time in a federal pen somewhere … because it’s illegal, you can’t do that," he joked.
Under the proposal, property owners targeted for redevelopment would be allowed a hearing before the advisory board to discuss their property’s status. Afterwards, the property owner would have 90 days to submit a proposal to the committee listing plans to renovate the property. If the committee rejected the plan, the owner would have another 60 days to implement any changes recommended by the committee to their plan.
If the property owner refuses to do anything, Lawson said "eminent domain is absolutely a last case scenario."
If eminent domain was employed, Lawson said a state-approved appraiser would be called in to evaluate the property. If the property value appraised lower than the value listed on local tax roll, Lawson noted the higher of the two values would be paid to the owner, per state law. He also noted the property owner had the option to get his or her own appraisal and negotiate property price with the city.
"The whole idea is to foster community involvement," Lawson said.
If property was seized, Lawson said the committee would take proposals for the property from potential developers, be it the next door neighbor or an out of town businessperson.
Overall, Lawson said he felt the community response to the plan was at least somewhat receptive.
"I think, by and large, if you really listen to them … the overwhelming majority of people will tell you ‘yeah, we need to do something’," he said. "The community is aware that we cannot continue on the path we’ve been on.
"More people will come to embrace this plan, especially when they really understand what its all about, what the processes are like, and that they’re not in any danger of somebody coming in and handing them a letter saying you’re out on the street tomorrow because we’re going to take your property," Lawson said. "Those things don’t happen."
He also noted the redevelopment committee would help property owners find low interest financing for any necessary renovations.
"There are things out there that are available … While we don’t have the money, we do want to identify areas were folks can go get that," Lawson said.
He noted another possibility would be for the city to use city funds to help. Lawson added such a step could only be taken in an urban renewal plan such as this. "I’m not saying the city will make those funds available, but it is a possibility," Lawson said.
He noted the committee’s next step "will be to take the transcribed notes from that town meeting, and really take a look at them, try to understand them more in depth," and apply them to the plan.
Of the redevelopment committee, Lawson said, "what we have to gain from this … would be the same thing the town has to gain from this, and that is a better community. We’re just citizens, that’s all we are. We’re not career politicians or anything like that … We want the best for our community."