Planning Commission begins work to form environmental court

Published 7:20 pm Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Members of the Carter County Planning Commission are beginning work to launch an environmental court for the county to help enforce property maintenance and other environmental issues.

Members of the Commission heard a research report from Carter County Commission Brad Johnson regarding what he has learned in talking with other counties across the state regarding their environmental courts or efforts to create one. Several counties across the state have either created such a court or are in the process of forming one, Johnson said.

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“Here locally, Sullivan County is looking at this,” Johnson said. “Unicoi County is also working on it with assistance from the Washington County environmental court.”

Carter County previously entertained the idea several years ago, but ultimately the prospect was shot down as being too costly. Johnson said, based on his research, he felt those initial estimate numbers were too high, and the court could be instituted for less than originally expected. However, it will not come free, he cautioned.

“There is a cost involved in this,” Johnson said. “There is no way you can establish a system like this without it.”

The largest cost on the original discussion would be to pay for the judge presiding over the environmental court.

In neighboring Washington County, Johnson said the court docket for the environmental court is heard one day every other week with a case limit of 10 per docket day. In 2015, Washington County brought in $16,000 in fines through the court, and in 2016 they brought in $17,000 according to Johnson’s research.

Johnson said he spoke with Carter County General Sessions Court Judge Keith Bowers Jr. regarding the possibility of him taking on the environmental court docket but learned that was not a possibility.

“His case load is overloaded,” Johnson said of Bowers. In addition to hearing the General Sessions criminal offense docket, Bowers also serves as the Judge for juvenile court matters in the county, hears a civil docket, and also hears child support cases. Johnson said Bowers’ court is already backlogged with cases and he could not take on another docket.

This leaves the county with two options, Johnson told the Planing Commission.

The first would be to establish a Sessions Court Part 2 which would handle the environmental court docket as well as take over some of the burdens on Bowers’ court. The estimated cost for that option would be over $100,000 just in salaries alone, Johnson said.

The second option would be to contract with an attorney in the area who is qualified to serve as an environmental court judge to preside over those cases either one day per week or one day every other week as determined by the case load.

“It’s something we have to give great consideration,” Johnson said.

Planning Commission Chairman Jerry Pearman asked for volunteers to work with County Attorney Josh Hardin to help begin the process to create the environmental court.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to get it off the ground,” Pearman said.

He said he would serve on the group working on the project, as did Johnson. Planning Commission member Sonja Culler, who also serves on the Carter County Commission also agreed to help with the process.

In other matters, the Planning Commission approved a measure to begin the process of adopting building, property and fire codes for the county as set by national and international standards. Planning Director Chris Schuettler told the group the process is lengthy but necessary to begin allowing the county to collect inspection fees generated in the county but are being sent to the state. The codes will also assist in helping the county enforce cleanup of problem properties, he said.

At the beginning of the meeting, Schuettler asked to address the group regarding what he felt was an important matter.

“There was a member of this board that made a comment about the Constitution and the rights of citizens, and I feel that needs to be addressed,” Schuettler said.

Schuettler then referenced a remark made by Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey during the Planning Commission’s meeting in April.

During that meeting, 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.

Code Enforcement Officer Mel McKay informed the Planning Commission he had investigated the woman’s concerns. “We’ve done all we can do,” McKay said, adding he had no proof that a person was living inside a storage building on the property.

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

McKay replied 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 in response, adding he felt the county should “do what it can” to resolve the woman’s complaint and concerns.

Schuettler took issue with the comment previously made by Humphrey regarding the rights of property owners.

“I want to personally apologize to the citizens of Carter County,” Schuettler said. “I didn’t make the statement, but I didn’t stand up and say something to that individual when it happened.”