Their mission challenged by protesters, several dozen regional leaders who met in Oak Ridge on Thursday said poor air quality, drug abuse, and the large number of low-skilled jobs are among the issues that ought to be addressed as a new five-county plan is developed.
Other top-priority issues include improving regional school quality, reducing the obesity rate, and providing access to affordable housing and more transportation alternatives.
Thursday’s forum was organized by PlanET, and about 75 people attended, including an estimated 30 protesters inside and more outside. The protesters were concerned about property rights and wanted to know, specifically, what PlanET might propose.
Some also tied the planning process to Agenda 21, a United Nations resolution passed in 1992 that was designed to encourage nations to use fewer resources and conserve open land by steering development to already dense areas.
“Plan East Tennessee is working in five counties— Blount, Knox, Loudon, Union, and Anderson—to come to a community agreed-upon consensus to eliminate private property rights,” one protester wrote in a letter forwarded to Oak Ridge Today. “This is part of the United Nations’ Agenda 21 plan.”
“Plan ET’s definition of community input is neutralization of any expressed opposition to their plans of eliminating private property ownership under the guise of Smart Growth,” another letter read. “Their community consensus is scripted for their pre-determined outcome.“
Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan met with a few protesters outside Thursday’s forum to explain his view of PlanET, emphasizing the need for regional cooperation.
“You’ve got to have those relationships,” Beehan said.
Rob Kerns, who led the forum discussion, said regions are competing with one another.
“That’s really what this is about,” said Kerns, who works for Wallace Roberts and Todd, a planning and design firm based in Philadelphia that was hired to run the project.
PlanET forums continue next week in the five participating counties: Anderson, Blount, Loudon, Knox, and Union. The Anderson County forum is at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Anderson County High School, located at 130 Maverick Circle.
The two-hour forums will focus on five areas of long-term livability: jobs, housing, transportation, a clean environment, and community health.
Officials are completing the first phase of the three-phase planning process, which began last year.
PlanET is funded with help from a $4.3 million U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant, and a finished product is due by Jan. 1, 2014, said Mark Donaldson, director of the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission, which is managing the three-year planning process.
The first phase was used to collect citizen input and identify common themes about regional assets and challenges. The second phase begins this summer.
“While PlanET’s Phase One process asked citizens, ‘Where are we now?’ as a region, Phase Two will ask, ’What kind of East Tennessee do we want future generations to inherit?’” Beehan said.
Kerns said the ultimate goal is to have a regional plan and implement it.
While acknowledging community challenges, Thursday’s forum—officially labeled a regional leadership dialogue—also recognized local assets, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee, area history and Appalachian heritage, and natural beauty, including mountains, rivers, and open spaces.
The PlanET regional partnership seeks to develop a regional blueprint to guide future development and foster citizen involvement, among other things.