Tennessee is no longer in the planning business.
Many of the 212 city and county governments in Tennessee — including, on occasion, Davidson County satellite communities Berry Hill and Forest Hills — have relied on the state Department of Economic and Community Development’s Local Planning Assistance office for help in matters ranging from stormwater management to street design. But the department announced in April that it would eliminate that division as part of a broader reorganization.
And while that’s likely to have a modest impact on Davidson County’s five satellite cities, the loss of that division — which zeroed in on local communities for pass-through grants — could affect regional organization and private planning companies, creating a new dynamic in the area.
For years, Tennessee municipalities without planning staffs have relied on ECD planners to ensure proper and manageable growth. Some city and county governments will likely be unable to afford private assistance to replace that help, which could leave them vulnerable to harmful development.
Some have speculated that local community interests might give way to those of high-profile developers. Tim Roach, executive director of the downtown Nashville-based Greater Nashville Regional Council, said that’s a fair point to consider.
“A lack of planning services leaves [municipalities] without the resources to adequately evaluate planning proposals,” for projects such as new subdivisions, Roach said.
There are about 52 municipalities in 13 counties in the Greater Nashville area. Of those 13 counties, Roach said four had planning contracts with the state and would qualify for grants this year. Of the 52 cities, 19 had planning contracts and would qualify.
“I’ve communicated by email with all of the municipalities, and I’ve contacted every city and county in our coverage area to see if they might want to use our services,” said Roach, a former veteran ECD employee. Those services include programming and various products on the municipal and regional levels, and they’re available to cities and counties that pay a membership fee scaled to their population size.
The group has mailed survey cards about the change and gotten responses from some 15 communities seeking assistance. While it’s not sitting in for the dissolved state office, Roach said his group would apply for available state grant funding on behalf of its members.
No doubt, ECD and its commissioner, Bill Hagerty, are promoting the grants — likely to soften concerns about the elimination of the local office. Gov. Bill Haslam included $1 million in local planning funds in his 2011-12 budget, and each community applying for grant funds will receive an equal amount.
Like any state-driven program, there are strings attached. Only those communities with current contracts for local planning services through the state are eligible to apply for the grants. In addition, the applying government entity must be willing to match the grant in full and must guarantee the funds will be used for services from a qualified planning professional.
The restrictions have alienated some municipalities.
“I’m aware of the grant program, but I haven’t looked into it much because the city has not been using that division the past 12 months,” said Kevin Helms, city manager of Oak Hill.
Likewise, satellite cities Belle Meade and Goodlettsville don’t qualify. Beth Reardon, city manager for Belle Meade, said her city would not need the grants, as it conducts its own planning. So does Goodlettsville, according to City Manager Jim Thomas.
Cities that want a grant must apply by Sept. 15, lending urgency to the effort.
“We got the information on it last week,” said Joe Baker, city manager of Berry Hill. “I feel sure we will take advantage of [the program].”
Baker said ECD’s local planning office was “very helpful,” providing staff reviews and attending zoning meetings on behalf of Berry Hill, where officials have undertaken a broader reimagining of the small satellite city’s urban environment over the past few years.
Berry Hill works with a private firm — Nashville-based Kimley-Horn and Associates — for various built-environment efforts. Baker said he’s in touch with the Greater Nashville Regional Council as well.
Laura Elkins, ECD spokeswoman, said the department employs five local planning staff members and will continue to do so through June 30, to “ensure this transition is smooth.” Elkins would not confirm that those employees would be laid off, saying only that the positions are budgeted through June 2012.
Carole Graves, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Municipal League, said that agency is surveying the cities the league assists and that are affected by ECD’s change. The agency’s primary function is to work with the Tennessee General Assembly on behalf of city governments.
“It’s our understanding that all of the development districts throughout the state sent letters to cities in their respective areas to determine whether that city would be interested in contracting with the development district to provide planning services,” Graves said. “Another option under consideration is through an interlocal agreement with two or more cities or with the county.”
For instance, Roach said, Putnam and White counties in the Upper Cumberland region are forming their own planning consortium.
Al Deck, city manager of Forest Hills, was not certain whether the satellite community in south Davidson County would apply for a grant.
“We’re a little bit different,” Deck said. “We had never used [ECD] until last year. They assisted us in taking a comprehensive plan and moving it into our zoning code. They do great work.”
With those planners gone — some interviewed for this story predict the planners will work as independent consultants with the state’s smaller communities — private planning companies might benefit.
Joe Hodgson, partner with Nashville-based Hodgson & Douglas LLC, said it’s “hard to say” if municipalities, whether they receive grant monies or not, will reach out to Nashville’s landscape architecture and planning companies.
“We do physical planning more than we would work on city budgets involving growth,” Hodgson said.
John Haas, principal with design firm Edge, said it’s “possible” a municipality could contact Nashville-based private planning companies.
“Almost any municipality handling planning works with companies and consultants,” said Haas, who has worked with the City of Franklin. “The question is will the city engineers [of those respective municipalities] handle some planning work.”
Not surprisingly, the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is monitoring the situation and is ready to assist.
“Quality regional and community planning also ensures that our transportation system will grow to manage the traffic congestion that accompanies economic growth and development, and that it grows in such a way that’s sensitive to valuable natural and community resources,” said MPO spokeswoman Mary Beth Ikard.
One thing is certain: Companies are aware of the grant monies that eventually will be spent — often in the private sector. It’s already happening in Berry Hill, Baker said. And it’ll only spread.