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Planning Commission backtracks on decision

By DAVID MELSON - dmelson@t-g.com
Posted 12/8/20

Confusion reigned last Tuesday night as Bedford County Planning Commission initially voted 8-1 to defer a “rural village neighborhood” zoning overlay for four areas of rural communities, then voted to rescind their earlier vote and approve the overlays after removing a portion permitting beer sales...

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Planning Commission backtracks on decision


Confusion reigned last Tuesday night as Bedford County Planning Commission initially voted 8-1 to defer a “rural village neighborhood” zoning overlay for four areas of rural communities, then voted to rescind their earlier vote and approve the overlays after removing a portion permitting beer sales.

Planning Ccmmission members repeatedly asked for clarification of what they were voting on. Several Flat Creek residents have complained they weren’t made aware of the zoning, a claim disputed by Zoning Director Chris White.

The rural village neighborhood overlay, described repeatedly as a “tool” by White, is intended to preserve the character of once-thriving very small rural communities which may be sometimes just a small convenience store and a few churches. Flat Creek, Bedford, Wheel and Halls Mill qualify in Bedford County.

Overlays can cover small areas of a community and regulate such things as what types of products can be sold and how new structures may be designed. They are only designated upon request of property owners.

But overlays, in their present form, eliminate beer sales restrictions within their boundaries. Jennifer Meyer and Tracy Strassner, co-owners of Sunchaser Market on State Highway 82 in Flat Creek, have requested an overlay for the area around their convenience store. The area encompasses the area around the highway’s intersection with New Center Church Road and a portion of nearby Hilltop Road in the heart of the small village.

Some leaders and members of Flat Creek Church of Christ, across the intersection from the store, have objected to beer sales. No objections have been raised by other nearby churches.

The store’s owners say they hope to sell package beer and offer beer with meals if permission to build a new, larger building is granted.

Several county commissioners have requested any decision on beer sales be deferred for 30 days while the Tennessee attorney general’s office determines whether overriding the 2,000-foot restriction covering other areas outside rural village overlays is legal.

White emphasized before the first vote that members were only voting to recommend the requested overlay, not change the overall zoning. The full county commission must grant final approval.

“I’m not here to debate the 2,000-foot rule but let’s give these rural communities the best opportunity we can to survive,” White said, saying isolated markets need beer sales to remain in business. “I’m the one who’s pushing these ideas forward, trying to keep us in the current century. They’re (the planning commission) just here to vote.”

Commissioners were told the Bedford County Beer Board also has to approve beer sales for Sunchaser and other markets.

Linda Yockey, who is both a county commissioner and secretary of the planning commission, repeatedly urged members to “slow down” and get solid answers on legalities of their actions.

“Why set the boundary when you don’t even know what can go in it?” board chair Kennon Threet asked. “Why are you in such a big hurry for 30 days? What’s the big deal?”

“Why do you want to delay?” Sweeney responded. “What is the concerns…This is more than a beer rule. This is to help these businesses grow and make profits and stay in their community.”

Sweeney urged approval of all but the beer rule.

Bo Wilson, a former county commissioner who said he was a 50-year member of the Flat Creek community, claimed county commissioner Jeff Sweeney added an amendment to the initial county commission-approved overlay bill, which grandfathers existing businesses within any approved overlays and allows them to automatically receive beer licenses, without going through the committee process.

“Why is a commissioner from Bell Buckle making a motion about something in my district?” Wilson asked.

Wilson claims Sweeney, a contractor, has been hired by Sunchaser’s owners to build their new building and accused him of a conflict of interest. Sweeney said he has not been hired by the owners but has done some remodeling on the current structure. The owners said they have not yet hired a contractor.

Wilson also claimed Sweeney’s motion was illegal and said he thought he should have been consulted as a “28-year commissioner” representing Flat Creek. “I ain’t happy about that,” he said.

At that point the board made its initial vote. Afterwards, Wilson said a community meeting should be held about the overlay request, an opinion echoed by several other members of the board including board chair Threet, and claimed adequate notice of last week’s meeting had not been given. White later disputed that claim.

“The only objection I have right now is that we know nothing about what’s going on right now. We need to know what your plans are and how it affects the community,” area resident and neighboring property owner Stanley Holmes told Meyer and Strassner.

Several nearby residents have said they fear a tavern, which they refer to as a “beer joint,” will be opened.

“They voted to defer 30 days, then deferred just beer 30 days and voted for the overlay,” area resident Linda Tate said in a phone call to the T-G later in the week.

Tate said she doesn’t like people she considers outsiders changing the small community’s vibe.

“I’ve been here 30 years, they’ve been here only a few years,” she said of the store’s owners. “They’re not going to upset our balance. Don’t come into our area and put in a beer joint.”

The owners said they would talk to anyone who comes into the store to see them. They wouldn’t directly answer when planning commissioner member Jimmy Woodson asked, “Are you willing to build the store if there’s a possibility that you won’t be able to sell beer?”

A crowd of Flat Creek residents left the meeting at that point. As they filed out, beer sales proponent Sweeney could be heard on an open mike saying to another board member, “I think it’s gonna be fun when we say they can’t sell beer but there’s a great dispensary in Flat Creek,” referring to cannabis.

Toward the end of the meeting, when Threet asked if there was any new business, Yockey said “I feel a tsunami coming on” and Sweeney said a beer sales denial would result in a lawsuit and the entire zoning overlay would be lost.

Sweeney said he feels the overlay is necessary so the county can have some control over possible cannabis outlets if the sale of marijuana is approved in Tennessee. He went on to complain about Wilson’s earlier comments, saying he had previously said he was for the store selling beer, just not serving beer.

Beer sales at Sunchaser Market were supported by most people he had talked to, Sweeney said, and a study shows they would generate an estimated $200,000 per year in sales taxes. Sales from several rural stores selling beer in rural Bedford County could make up for the lack of a wheel tax, prevent higher property taxes and provide money for higher teacher pay, Sweeney said.

“We’re supposed to represent all the people of Bedford County, not five or six people,” Sweeney said, criticizing beer sales opponents.

Sweeney suggested allowing beer sales at Sunchaser Market, a popular stopping point for people bound for Tims Ford Reservoir, but limiting Sunday sales until after 2 p.m.

“I don’t think it’s right for us to say they can’t have a revenue source coming in because somebody’s at the church three hours a week,” Sweeney said.

Yockey said she fears the vote is jeopardizing the 2,000-foot rule limiting beer sales near churches and schools.

The board, in the second go-around, voted to allow zoning overlays for eligible communities but to remove the amendment added by Sweeney allowing beer sales, and temporarily exclude beer sales approval at least until a ruling is made by the attorney general’s office

“The Planning Commission did rescind an earlier motion it made that evening to defer recommended boundaries for the Rural Village Neighborhood overlay districts. However, the decision to do that was deliberated carefully with spirited discussion from both sides during the regular meeting, not intentionally orchestrated after the meeting,” White told the T-G on Friday.

At least one planning commissioner can be heard on a recording of the meeting saying the Flat Creek area residents left too early.

That vote may not be the end of the story.

“We had nine members in attendance with six favorable votes. We have an 11-member board with one member having recently resigned and moved out of town and one member who was unable to attend due to sickness. So in total, we had 10 possible members with nine in attendance,” White said.

“The two-thirds vote was deemed successful for the nine members present but would not have been successful if we counted the full board of 10. I have reached out to County Attorney John T. Bobo to determine if the vote was successful or not. If the vote is deemed not successful, I will simply not forward the matter to the County Commission for January and bring it back up to the Planning Commission at its next meeting for reconsideration.”


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