In 2009 and 2015, a pair of three-story apartment buildings for seniors went up in an area of mostly businesses. That was allowed under Brown County’s zoning ordinance, without any special votes.
Last week, a request was approved to change a neighboring piece of farmland from residential zoning to general business so that a performing arts center can be built on it.
Snyder Farm was the best place in the county to put the Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center, presenter Bruce Gould told the Brown County Area Plan Commission last week. Most of it is out of the floodplain, and it’s close to a highway, water, sewer and internet, and to downtown Nashville’s tourist crowds.
Not many pieces of land in Brown County check off all those boxes, he said.
But some residents — including senior apartment-dwellers — said they are uneasy about this possible new neighbor. They like being able to walk to the store or McDonald’s, but they’re split on the question of whether adding a concert hall in the same area will be a benefit or a detriment to their quality of life.
Those are some of the reasons why Brown County resident Tim Clark, who is a former certified quality auditor, wants to see the county develop more detailed land- use and economic-development plans, plus a process to use them when governing boards are evaluating opportunities.
“How do we know this is what people want?” Clark asked fellow members of the Brown County Redevelopment Commission on Aug. 10. “How do we know this isn’t a mistake? We don’t know.”
Brown County does have a comprehensive plan, which was revised in 2011 and passed in 2012. Before that version, it had been updated in 2001, and before that, the plan the county was working under was from the 1960s.
The comprehensive plan’s mission is “to provide guidance on decision making regarding Brown County land use, public service and zoning that enhances the quality of life for the residents based on the county’s natural beauty and rural atmosphere.”
“While most other counties are quite properly concerned with their future growth and welfare in terms of such concepts as economic development, impact of transportation routes and proximity to urban centers, these are not the only factors to be considered in anticipating or planning the future well-being of Brown County,” it says in the introduction.
“The real wealth of Brown County is its unique and abundant physical features and cultural characteristics. … Brown County satisfies some of the nostalgia for a time when life seemed simpler and more manageable. Those who choose to visit here and live here recognize that this is a mixture of reality and illusion, yet they find the compromise acceptable.”
Members of the Brown County Area Plan Commission are instructed to consider the comprehensive plan’s goals when they vote.
The APC is the body that voted on the Maple Leaf land rezoning last week, plus a rezoning request from the owners of Big Woods Brewing Co.
The planning director gives APC members a “staff report” that tells them what surrounding properties are zoned and how they are used. The person asking for the zoning change gives a presentation about his plans for the land; and then the audience is allowed to comment or ask questions before the vote.
Other factors the county planning director asks the board to think about are the current “conditions and character” of structures in the area, the “most desirable use” of the land, the conservation of property values and “responsible development and growth.”
Clark, as an RDC member, has been working on a grant application so that the county can develop a longer-term vision of all of those factors.
If won, that grant money was envisioned to fund an update to the 2011-12 comprehensive plan.
It also could fund development of a more extensive master plan, which could map out the steps to reach certain goals — such as developing more affordable housing, systematically improving roads, developing a trail system or budgeting for infrastructure improvements.
He asked APC members to take more time for study before they made a decision on the two rezoning requests before them last week.
“In the case of the requests for the Maple Leaf and Big Woods/Hard Truth projects, these projects represent a major change that is projected to result in a permanent increase in year-round tourism in Brown County,” Clark wrote in a letter to the board.
In his pitch to the APC, Gould said the Maple Leaf plan could check off several overall goals in the comprehensive plan: the building is designed to use energy responsibly and utility connections are already nearby; it will allow guests who visit it to experience Brown County’s “scenic atmosphere”; and it may spur the development of shuttle service, which fits into the goal of “safe and reliable transportation.”
Gould said the goal of “consider the impact of changing land use on adjoining land owners” had been addressed as well.
“Most of the adjoining land owners I’ve spoken to are in full support of this project,” he said. “It stands to benefit McDonald’s, there’s the IGA and there are businesses located out there that fully support this — not just from people coming to the theater, but it’s going to result in more jobs; it could turn around the declining school population and housing.
“This could be what it takes to turn things around economically for Brown County,” Gould said.
Clark asked APC members to explain how they applied the comprehensive plan to their decision-making.
The board did not answer that question before passing a 6-1 positive recommendation on the Maple Leaf rezoning and a 7-0 positive recommendation on the Hard Truth Hills rezoning.
Vice President Carol Bowden told Clark that the APC doesn’t have the final decision on whether or not either of these projects will go forward as planned; its vote is “just a starting point.”
The APC’s recommendations are forwarded onto other governing bodies for the final say in rezoning matters. For the Big Woods project, that body is the town council, and for the Maple Leaf project, it’s the county commissioners.
Over the past couple months, RDC members have been forming more specific questions related to comprehensive planning: How much more new development can our streets, parking and current infrastructure, like utilities and emergency services, support? Is there a disaster plan in place for large crowds? How much would it cost to expand needed services and how would those be paid for? Who has been involved in long-term planning discussions and who else needs to be brought to the table?
Planning Director Chris Ritzmann, who was hired last February, said state law allows those sorts of questions to be addressed in a comprehensive plan.
Brown County’s plan meets the minimum standards, but it is vague, and, in some cases, contradictory, she said.
If it’s going to be used as a basis for rezoning requests, it needs to be updated and possibly expanded, she said.
Representatives of multiple local groups should contribute to a comprehensive plan — as was done back in 2011-12 — but ultimately, the responsibility for writing the plan falls on the APC by state law, she said.
Another piece of a successful comprehensive plan is the zoning ordinance, which makes enforcing the objectives of that plan possible, she said.
The aim of zoning rules is to group similar land uses together to prevent incompatibility, such as a hog farm operating next door to a school or a large concentration of homes. But special exceptions to the ordinance are permitted by permission of the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Over the last several months, the planning boards have been working piece by piece on the zoning ordinance to make it clearer, to make it comply with state or federal laws, or to address items that weren’t in the 1960s version, like cellphone towers.
Ritzmann said it would be up to the APC to decide whether they wanted to abandon the zoning ordinance updates and move to another project like updating the comprehensive plan. She said her department has about $30,000 in funding available for such a project, which she thinks would cover it.
“Within two years of the comprehensive plan being updated, that’s when you’re supposed to update the zoning code. … So we’re late in the revision, but it’s better than not revising it at all.”
“I think the RDC is well-meaning and I like what they do and I think it can only be helpful if we all participate, but as far as funding goes, I think we could do it with APC funds,” she said.
If residents want more assurance that the objectives of the comprehensive plan are being followed when the APC and BZA make their decisions, one thing those members could do is to cite the items in the comprehensive plan that they believe support their vote, she said.
This is not the first time that a resident has suggested a new master or comprehensive plan, or a fresh look at zoning. A search of the Brown County Democrat archives turned up discussions in 1978, the mid- to late 1990s, 2008 and 2013-14.
Each time, other discussions also were going on about possible growth or developments in the county.
In 1978, the entire town of Story was for sale, the town was studying extending sewers and the town had been cleared by the state department of health to extend new water lines.
In 1998 and 1999, Brown County Water Utility had received clearance to expand water service to more customers and Cordry-Sweetwater was talking about incorporating into a town.
In 2008, the county commissioners agreed to fund a zoning ordinance update in the same meeting in which they agreed to rezone land for Twelve Stone Ministries, a Christian retreat campus.
In the summer of 2013, the county commissioners and county council began discussing how to pay for a zoning law update. Nine months later, the zoning board rejected a special land use request to develop Freedom Park. It would have put a campground between to the Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park and the Brown County Dragway. Later that summer, a separate proposal was made and rejected to open a public zip line course on residential property on Hornettown Road.
The Board of Zoning Appeals voted down the Freedom Park proposal and the zip line course proposal 5-0 based on the public’s concerns about increased noise and traffic and their effect on the neighborhood. Then, members asked again for a zoning law update.
Explaining her Freedom Park vote in a June 4, 2014 story, BZA member Darla Brown cited the county’s comprehensive plan: “Zoning and regulations that accompany zoning need to follow thought-out, deliberate planning. If this happens, the delicate balance between private property rights and the impact on individuals, neighborhoods and communities can be obtained with the spirit of fairness.”
The Brown County Comprehensive Plan guides land use in the county. Its goals are supported by a zoning ordinance, which is a separate document.
The comprehensive plan’s overall goals are (in no order of importance):
1. To preserve, protect and ensure wise and efficient use of limited and non-renewable natural resources for the enjoyment of future generations;
2. To encourage the preservation of Brown County’s rural and scenic atmosphere;
3. To encourage land use that considers the effect on the health, safety and welfare of people and the environment;
4. To provide and require adequate standards for future economic development in the county that recognizes compatible relationships among land use and the environment;
5. To recognize the importance of sustainable forest management and agriculture within Brown County so that practices are compatible with environmental sustainability;
6. To provide for safe and reliable transportation and communication systems in the county to serve the needs of residents, businesses and visitors;
7. To consider the impact of changing land use development on adjoining land owners;
8. To develop land use policies and regulations that are appropriate for the county;
9. To maintain or improve enforceable ordinances;
10. To encourage programs that help the public understand ordinances and practices.