BY ALEXANDER WILLIS
Williamson County carries many definable traits; quality schools, a close proximity to Nashville, as well as its rural character – the last of which has recently been thrust into the public eye once more after a battle between large landowners and the rest of the populace more than a decade ago.
On Monday evening, the County Commission saw an update on its new Comprehensive Plan – a plan designed to “provide strategic guidance for decision making related to development, preservation, and the provision of services and public facilities.” Conducted by consulting firm McBride Dale Clarion, the development of the new plan will eventually see guidelines put into place for everything from preservation to residential density – the latter of which being a large point of contingency among county residents.
Back in 2006, the county was working on the last and current Comprehensive Plan. Through months of public input and discussion, plans of reducing residential density in unincorporated areas of the county were explored as to maintain the area’s rural character, with some of these ideas even making their way into drafts of the plan.
Generally, the previous and current allowed density for residential development in unincorporated areas of the county is one home per acre in the eastern portion, and one home per five acres in the west. Through the community input, plans were laid out to reduce that residential density.
Late in the process, large landowners fiercely opposed the idea of reducing residential density in unincorporated areas of the county, arguing the measure could see the value of their land fall. Ultimately, the Commission did not reduce residential density in unincorporated parts of the county, and instead aimed to preserve rural character through other means, such as better natural resource protection and improved open space standards.
Now, more than a decade later, the challenge of preserving rural Williamson County is back in the spotlight as the county develops its new Comprehensive Plan for the next decade.
Greg Dale with McBride Dale Clarion was present at the County Commission meeting in Franklin, and gave a presentation as to the firm’s findings so far, opening with the tremendous growth expected in the near future.
“These are tremendous growth rates that this community is facing,” Dale said. “Frankly, a lot of us have a hard time wrapping our head around that much growth, but these are legitimate growth forecasts. Bottom line is, you are in one of the hottest spots in one of the hottest regions in the [country], in terms of growth and development pressures – you are looking at literally more than doubling your population within the next 20 years.”
Dale went on to share growth patterns experienced in Williamson County; in 2010, the county’s entire population was roughly 184,000. In 2017, that number had exploded to 226,000, and in 2040 is expected to be around 536,000 – an almost 140 percent increase.
“One of the things that I’d always like to remind people of [is] when you’re facing the kinds of issues that your facing… frankly, I’d rather live in a community where a lot of people want to live than live in a community where people don’t want to live,” Dale said. “Now, you’re dealing with that to a very high degree, and you’re doing the right things to try to manage that, but in some ways the growth problems that you’re having are good problems to have, and that’s because people want to be here.”
With the year-long process due to conclude around the end of the year, Dale urged the community to continue to provide input as to more accurately shape the county as its residents desire it to be shaped. Dale continued, saying that he believed the county was at a crossroads in terms of preserving its rural character.
“This county is faced with a choice, and I think that this is a kind of now or never choice that you’re facing given the growth pressures that you’re facing – you don’t update your comprehensive plan every year, this is a once in a ten year kind of process,” Dale said. “Does the county still want to preserve rural character in unincorporated areas by focusing the majority of growth in and around the municipalities? Or does the county want to conclude that the continuation of suburban development throughout the unincorporated east is acceptable and that the previous policies are no longer appropriate? I think that’s the choice that this community’s going to face.”
County Commissioner Barb Sturgeon told the Home Page she was critical of the decision back in 2007 to not reduce residential density in the Comprehensive Plan, and attributed part of the county’s congestion issues directly to that decision. During Dale’s presentation, Sturgeon voiced concerns that this new plan could very well end up the same way.
“I’m excited that we’re looking at this, but what’s going to be different this time than [the] last time that we went through this and still we’re where we are right now,” Sturgeon asked Dale. “What’s going to be different?”
“The community made the choice to not address the underlying zoning,” Dale said.
“How did the community do that,” Sturgeon asked.
“Frankly, what happened is landowners became concerned about the impact on their land of this decision,” Dale said. “There was ultimately a decision that was made to not change that zoning.”
Despite what happened more than a decade ago, Dale was clear that the community now had the opportunity to address residential density concerns.
“Basically what happened is there was consideration at that point to revisit that underlying policy of one unit per acre in the eastern area, and ultimately the county decided not to change that policy and stay with that,” Dale said. “Right now, we’re at a point where, again, I think you have the opportunity to reassess that.”
The new Comprehensive Plan will continue to be developed until the end of 2019, afterwards it would be adopted by the county government shorty after in early 2020. Community input is still highly encouraged, and may be done so through online surveys, continued workshops and community meetings.