Planning Commission hears update on environmental court, property complaints

Published 9:51 pm Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Members of the Carter County Planning Commission heard an update on establishing an environmental court for the county as well as concerns from local property owners on Tuesday.

Carter County Commissioner Brad Johnson spoke to the group regarding his research into setting up an environmental court that would hear cases regarding litter, derelict properties, and zoning ordinance violations, among other civil matters related to property maintenance. The county began discussions several years ago regarding setting up such a court.

“The first time this was discussed it came back with a $250,000 price tag,” Johnson said. “I thought that was steep.”

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He said based on his research, most of the cost would fall in the area of General Sessions Court, where the environmental court’s jurisdiction would apply. Currently, Johnson said, General Sessions Court is loaded down with cases — including criminal cases, juvenile matters, and civil cases — and could not take on an additional caseload created by an environmental court.

The county’s option, Johnson said, would be to establish a second track in General Sessions Court with a second judge. The second track could be on a part-time or full-time basis to handle environmental court and could also help relieve the court case load for current General Sessions Court Judge Keith Bowers Jr. by serving as an overflow for other cases.

Johnson told the group he would continue researching the issue with other local judicial systems that have environmental courts to try to see what sort of cost the county is looking at.

“I think it’s more than worth it,” Johnson said.

Currently, if a property owner refused to comply with the county’s request to clean the property up, the county can come in and clean the property and then file a tax lien against the property to recoup the cost for the cleanup. Having an environmental court combined with adopting the International Property Maintenance Codes would give the Planning and Zoning Department the authority to issue property owners a citation and bring them into court before a judge to resolve the matter.

“People tend to take things more seriously when they see that black robe,” Johnson said.

Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey said when the county began considering the issue they hosted a special workshop with Judge Larry Potter of Memphis in 2011.

“Judge Larry Potter started the first environmental court in the state, one of the first in the nation,” Humphrey said. “He made it clear there will be no cost to the county because those court costs and fines would offset that cost.”

Currently, the Planning Commission is working to adopt the International Property Maintenance Codes which would help codify property and zoning offenses and grant the county the power to enforce those codes.

“If we are going to adopt these maintenance codes, we need enforcement,” Humphrey said, adding he felt the only way the county would see enforcement with results would be through an environmental court.

Humphrey made a motion to ask Johnson to do further research and bring his findings on cost back to the Planning Commission. The motion was seconded by Planning Commission member and Carter County Commissioner Randal Jenkins and passed on a vote of 8-2. Planning Commission members, Humphrey, Jenkins, Ken Arney, Jerry Smith, County Commissioner Sonja Culler, County Commissioner Robert Carroll, County Commissioner Ray Lyons, and Planning Commission Chairman Jerry Pearman voted in favor of the motion. Planning Commission members Ralph Watson and Steve Pierce voted against the motion.

Members of the Planning Commission also heard concerns from county residents regarding what they felt were property violations at neighboring properties.

A resident of Plazz Avenue in the Central Community spoke to the Planning Commission regarding a house near hers where she said multiple storage buildings had been erected and a man was living in one of the storage buildings. She also complained about the number of animals on the property.

Code Enforcement Officer Mel McKay said he had investigated the woman’s concerns and had driven by the property again on Tuesday. “We’ve done all we can do,” McKay told the Planning Commission, adding they have no proof that a person is living inside a storage building on the property.

The woman then asked that someone go on the property to investigate the storage building.

McKay said the county did not have the authority to do that and if the county sent someone onto private property in that manner it could violate the property owner’s Constitutional rights.

“I don’t think we need to worry about Constitutional rights,” Humphrey said, adding he felt the county should “do what it can” to resolve the woman’s complaint and concerns.

Several residents of the Lacy Hollow area spoke to the Planning Commission regarding derelict properties on the road, vehicles parked in the right of way, and suspected drug activity.

The Planning Commission referred them to contact the Carter County Sheriff’s Office regarding their concerns about drug activity and said they would look into reported derelict properties in the community to see what steps the county could take.