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County commission discusses Comprehensive Land Use Plan for growth in rural areas

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Among talks of population and traffic increases across the county, representatives from the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) updated the Williamson County Commission on the revision process of the nearly 12-year-old Comprehensive Land Use Plan on Monday.

The Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2007 and outlines the ways in which the county, specifically the rural areas of the unincorporated county, would adapt to growth in the following years. The plan emphasizes the preservation of the county’s rural character and open space design.

However, population growth has exceeded the plan’s expectations, forcing more subdivisions into the rural areas of the county, specifically on the eastern side, and threatening this preservation goal, according to some.

Greg Dale, the lead consultant for the project, presented this reality to the county commission.

“Your current plan says very strongly that we want to preserve rural character, and we want to encourage growth to occur in and around existing developments, but we’re not, frankly, achieving that at this point,” Dale said.

“This county is faced with a choice. … Does the county still want to preserve rural character in unincorporated areas, … or does the county want to conclude that the continuation of the suburban development throughout the unincorporated East, in particular, is acceptable and that the previous policies are no longer appropriate?”

This choice will greatly shape the landscape of Williamson County over the next two decades, Dale explained, especially with a forecasted population of 536,000 by 2040, more than double the numbers in 2017, or approximately 226,000.

At the beginning of the meeting, three citizens, including former 9th District Commissioner Mary Brockman, who worked on the original Comprehensive Plan, voiced their concerns about suburban growth encroaching on rural areas, increasing traffic and adding pressure to the school system — all concerns Dale outlined in his presentation as common among the public.

However, Dale also explained the potential dangers of keeping the plan as-is.

“If we make the choice that we don’t want to fundamentally change the planning policies in the eastern half of the county, and if the growth pressure is occurring the way it’s forecasted to occur, then that sets up a whole series of issues that you’re going to have to deal with as a county in terms of traffic and public facilities and all sorts of things,” Dale said.

Commission chairman Tommy Little, District 5, said the commission will continue to hear the public’s concerns, but the issue of growth is more evident now than it was 10 years ago and might require a change of course. Nonetheless, he explained the challenges that arise with suburban expansion.

“Number one: schools — the continual building of schools; number two is roads. We haven’t addressed the funding needs for roads yet, and that’s going to be the next big thing,” Little said.

“With the education impact fee and the sales tax, we have put steps in place that have given us a short-term to medium-term fix. But long term, we’ve still got the roads issues to address, and we haven’t completely solved the school issue.”

Little explained there are several different options to consider for closing this funding gap, but a property tax increase is generally a last resort.

Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson spoke to the commissioners about the change that has occurred over the last several years and the pressures from the public to make certain decisions.

He mentioned that Highway 96 will be widened to five lanes from Williamson to Rutherford County, and local officials will feel pressure in how they respond to that change. Similarly, he said the county commission will feel pressure when it’s time to vote on whether the Comprehensive Plan should be amended or not.

“I would love nothing better than to slow this thing down, but it’s going to take your efforts in zoning and planning,” Anderson said.

As updates to the Comprehensive Plan continue, they will appear online at williamson2040.org, where surveys and additional resources are available.

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