By Kendal Groner
On Tuesday, Feb. 13, the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) held an informal work session with local officials and representatives from Unicoi County to discuss a joint comprehensive land use plan for the entire county.
Comprehensive land use plans are intended to guide the future decisions of a community and address public policy issues related to issues such as transportation, utilities, land use, recreation and housing. The final copy of the plan will be ready by mid-June.
“A land use plan generally spans about 20 years, and we’ve been gathering information from stakeholders in the community,” said Rhonda Sawyer, community planner with the FTDD. “We’re writing this plan for the citizens and municipalities of Unicoi County, and we want as much participation as possible.”
After meeting with the municipalities, the FTDD will hold a series of public meetings to include input from community members in the plan. They are currently in phase three of the plan, and phase one was community profiling followed by the analysis of transportation, mobility, infrastructure, and housing in phase two.
“We have these plans to spur economic growth and guide planning commissions and legislative bodies,” said Renee Mann, regional planner with the FTDD.
Mann said they intend to take what is important to the community and create objectives to be included in the plan. During last week’s work session, marketing, transportation, public improvement projects, utilities, and housing were some of the topics discussed.
Sawyer began by asking whether Unicoi County was being sufficiently marketed, or if there was room for improvement in order to highlight the assets of the area.
“It definitely needs more marketing,” said Marie Rice, Unicoi County Commission chairwoman. “I think our natural resources, which is a big plus, is one of the things that we can really use to pull people into the county and get them to live here, and play here.”
Sawyer also asked if the county officials believed that community members were good stewards of the environment, and if that could be prioritized and utilized in any way.
“I think we are good stewards, but I do think there’s room for improvement,” said Rice. “I think we need more education … just as far as protecting the viewshed and the visibility of the land in whatever means we can. There’s a lot to be said because everyone that passes through says it’s beautiful, and when I look around I see the beauty but I do see areas that could use improvement.”
Rocky Fork State Park, the newest state park in Tennessee, the Nolichucky River with pristine trout fishing, and the Appalachian Trail were mentioned as strong natural resource assets that attract people to the area.
Sawyer also mentioned the installation of colorblind viewfinders that were installed at the westbound I-26 overlook near Erwin back in November. Tennessee Tourism officials installed the viewfinders at three overlooks in the Tri-Cities to allow those who are colorblind to see the fall foliage.
“That really spoke volumes for what Tennessee thought Unicoi County had to offer,” Sawyer said.
Community member John Day mentioned that he would like to see more attention geared towards Unicoi County and its natural attractions on the State of Tennessee main website.
“We don’t get the attention we need from the state level,” Day said. “That could be quite an asset for us here, and we need those listings for our county.”
Next, Sawyer and Mann asked about any transportation needs for the county, as well as ideas for public improvement projects or ideas for additional activities.
“I think that NET Trans is pretty good for our area, but I know we could use more handicap transportation,” Rice said.
Day also mentioned that he felt a lack of parking was an issue for the county, and could potentially deter people from opening businesses or restaurants.
“Who will put a restaurant in when there’s not parking?” Day asked. “I think additional parking would help us grow.”
Sawyer said that she had grown up in Unicoi County, and one problem she noticed in terms of retaining the population, especially among the younger crowd, was a lack of things to do.
“I don’t think much has changed,” she said.
Rice mentioned a slew of ongoing sports activities at the YMCA in Erwin; however she noted that it might not be appealing to everyone.
“It depends on the family,” Rice said. “If you’ve got families that like to camp or have their kids in the outdoors, we have that, but you don’t see that much anymore. When I was growing up that was the big thing … but people are kind of migrating back to that and a lot of millennials do like hiking.”
The issue, according to Sawyer, is that many businesses and restaurants are apprehensive to locate here simply because they fear there isn’t enough of a population to support them, creating a bit of a catch 22.
She did praise the safety of the area as an appealing asset, especially for families looking to move from cities where there might be more crime.
Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White spoke to the feeling of innocence that this area has maintained, but he said ultimately he felt the focus should be on trying to attract industry.
“The bigger picture here is I bet back in the 1970s when I grew up, we had 10 or so industries,” White said. “When you lose a 500 employee plant and replace it with restaurants, you’re really going down the wrong road in my opinion.”
White asked if it was plausible that Unicoi County could attract industry like that again, and Rice noted that the competition from surrounding communities was probably a hindrance to that.
“When you drive through Greene County and Sullivan County and Carter County, and you look at those empty buildings there too and those businesses that are gone, and we’re competing with those counties that are a lot larger than we are,” Rice said.
Sawyer said the lack of site ready locations seems to be the biggest deterrent for new industries, especially larger ones.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch mentioned that since around 2008, the entire industrial base in America has been declining, and it is affecting more areas than just Unicoi County.
“There’s a signal now that it may be coming back … but people are looking to build bigger, more modernized plants with robotics and automation,” Lynch said. “Of course we still need to find the people who are entrepreneurs and small industries that may grow. We need to try to feed that. But on the other hand, we also have to support what happens regionally, because that’s kind of where we’re going whether we want to or not.”
The FTDD will begin their public meetings on Monday, Feb. 19, at Temple Hill Elementary School from 4-5 p.m., and from 6-7 p.m. The following meeting will be on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at Unicoi Elementary School at the same times.
Community members are also encouraged to fill out an online survey to provide additional input. The survey can be found at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/UnicoiLandUsePlan.