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Town of Unicoi celebrates 20th anniversary

The Town of Unicoi invites everyone to attend its 20th anniversary celebration on Friday, Oct. 17, at the Unicoi Tourist Information Center, 106 Unicoi Village Place. The event will be held from 6 to 8 p.m., with fireworks scheduled for 7:45 p.m. Light refreshments will be served.
Since its incorporation two decades ago, the Town of Unicoi has grown leaps and bounds.
During a vphone interview with The Erwin Record on Monday, Oct. 13, Johnny Lynch, who has served as the town’s mayor for the last decade, said the idea of incorporation of the town came about due to the threat of annexation of the Unicoi community by Johnson City.
In January 1993, The Erwin Record reported that the group Citizens Promoting Responsible Government (CPRG) and local Ruritan Club members joined forces to fight the proposed annexation of part of north Unicoi County by Johnson City. The groups met with the Unicoi County Commission and held public meetings to address concerns about the impact that annexation by Johnson City would have on their community.
While addressing county commissioners during a January 1993 meeting, Lynch, who was serving as the chairman of the CPRG, said several fiscal problems, particularly increased taxation of citizens, could follow annexation by Johnson City. The Erwin Record also reported that the CPRG believed annexation would result in 230 Unicoi County students becoming Johnson City students which could have resulted in a loss of as much as $250,000 in state average daily attendance funds.
The CPRG and Unicoi Ruritan Club hosted a meeting for concerned citizens at Unicoi Elementary on Feb. 1, 1993 – a meeting which left little doubt that citizens did not desire to be annexed by Johnson City. At this meeting, a panel of five persons addressed many of the technical and legal points surrounding the issue and members of the audience then presented questions to the panel and expressed their feelings on the subject.
Attorney Charlton Devault, who at the time was representing the Gray community in an annexation fight against Johnson City, offered a series of legal viewpoints concerning the possibility of Johnson City annexation into Unicoi, The Erwin Record reported in its Feb. 3, 1993 issue.
“If you are going to look at incorporation as an alternatttive to annexation, you must do it as soon as possible,” Devault said. “… I suggest to you that while Johnson City is busy with Gray … you incorporate.”
Responding to questions, Devault said an incorporated city could be run without property taxes but must have good leadership and be willing to have only county-provided services such as law enforcement.
• • •
During a meeting on Feb. 5, 1993, at Unicoi United Methodist Church, concerned citizens met once again and formed the group “Unicoi United” with the motto: “Looking to the Future.” Lynch was elected as chairman, Johnny L. McFadden was elected treasurer, Pat L. Lynch was elected record secretary and Martha Erwin was elected corresponding secretary. A 14-member board of directors was also elected, The Erwin Record reported in its Feb. 10, 1993 issue.
“There was a very positive feeling in the group tonight that we were doing something that should have been done 20 years ago,” Lynch told The Erwin Record following the meeting. “There was a strong feeling that we should unite our community with the goal of developing a town government which would provide the services that our people desire and give them a voice in what they want from the government.
“We are trying to develop a vision for what we want our community to become, and a game plan to get us to that point,” Lynch continued. “Growth is coming to Unicoi and there will be change whether people want it or not. We feel the people of Unicoi are better prepared to decide how this growth should affect us than anyone else.”
The Erwin Record also reported that by the time of the Feb. 5, 1993 meeting, Johnson City officials had publicly stated their annexation plans did not include Unicoi.
“These comments appeared in The Johnson City Press on Feb. 3, 1993, and we are prepared to take Johnson City’s top officials at their word,” Lynch also said.
• • •
In March 1993, members of Unicoi United submitted a petition bearing 851 signatures in favor of the incorporation of Unicoi to the Unicoi County Election Commission. The petition requested that a referendum be placed on the August 1994 ballot.
In less than a week Unicoi United volunteers gathered signatures on the petition of more than one-third of Unicoi’s registered 1,500 voters at the time, which was required to put the referendum on the August 1994 ballot.
This petition was officially certified by the Unicoi County Election Commission on April 22, 1993.
Law required Unicoi United to wait 15 months after the filing of the petition before the matter could be placed on an election ballot for consideration.
• • •
By April 1993, Unicoi County officials said they were in support of the proposed plans to incorporate Unicoi.
During a meeting on April 1, 1993, County Executive Paul Monk said he favored the move for incorporation of Unicoi as long as the majority of its citizens were supportive of it.
“If the majority of the 2,800 people in the area that you have outlined to become a city, if this is their desire, then I want to work with that group to the very best of my ability to cooperate and work to make Unicoi a great city within Unicoi County,” Monk said.
The Erwin Record also reported in April 1993 that Town of Erwin officials did not object to efforts to incorporate Unicoi.
“I don’t think (Unicoi) has any plans to annex beyond Dry Creek …” Erwin Mayor Russell Brackins said, “and I personally have no opposition to their forming a municipal government.”
• • •
When the time came for Unicoi voters to go to the polls in August 1994, incorporation passed with 415 voters supporting incorporation. Voting against incorporation were 277 citizens.
The Erwin Record reported in August 1994 that the new town covered approximately 16 square miles and has approximately 2,800 residents.
Even though the referendum for incorporation passed, the community could not officially become a town until a mayor and aldermen were elected, according to the Tennessee Municipal Advisory Service. The election for a mayor and two aldermen was set for Oct. 4, 1994.
The term for mayor was set at four years, The Erwin Record also reported. The alderman receiving the higher number of votes would serve a four-year term and the alderman getting the second higher number of votes would serve a two-year term. All terms thereafter would be four-year terms, according to Tennessee state law.
During the Oct. 4 election, Charles Hensley was elected as the town’s first mayor. Lynch and William “Bill” Nuss were elected to fill the two aldermen seats.
Out of the Town of Unicoi’s 1,654 registered voters, 565 people, or 34 percent, went to the polls to cast their ballots in the town’s first election.
The board initially held its meeting two times each month at Unicoi Elementary School.
• • •
During Monday’s interview, Lynch said the idea of incorporating Unicoi as a town began as a way to prevent Johnson City from annexing into the county.
“But it became something more,” he added. “As we got Unicoi United going we started talking about things we wanted to do and see happen in our community. It became an effort to start a town where we could do things and provide services.”
Some of the ideas Lynch said that have come to fruition involve emphasizing the heritage of the Unicoi community, as well as its natural beauty.
“It’s a good feeling to see that,” he also said.
Lynch said the board met at the school for a few months before the Bank of Tennessee, which was located where Unicoi Town Hall is now, allowed the board to use one room at the bank for meetings.
“That room is where the mayor’s office is now,” Lynch said.
When the bank moved out of the building, the town purchased it and converted it into a new town hall.
The town’s first city recorder was Pat Lynch, Johnny’s wife, who worked as a volunteer. The town’s first employee was a city recorder. From this staff of one, the town has grown to employee several individuals and consist of different departments, from parks and rec to public relations.
Around 2000, the board expanded from three members to its present five-member format – four aldermen and one mayor.
Lynch also said the town remains committed to being able to provide services without needing property taxes.
“I hope that we continue that track we’re on now,” Lynch said. “We’re pretty sound. We’ve managed to provide for the citizens and do a good job on our roads and maintenance. … We have a proactive board that looks to the future, but we are also reactive to what our citizens want.
“The key going forward is to keep the people in mind. We want to provide a good quality of life in this beautiful area where we live.”
For more information about the Town of Unicoi anniversary, call 743-7162.