Frustrations about junk and unsightly debris dominated the conversation during a community forum in Rossville last week.
The gathering, hosted at the Rossville Civic Center on Feb. 5, was one of the eight forums planned throughout Walker County this month to give residents a chance to highlight issues they want to see addressed in their community and county government over the next 10 years.
For much of the night, Rossville citizens called for county leaders to take action to reduce the number of inoperable cars creating eyesores within residential neighborhoods. According to Walker County ordinance, homeowners are permitted to have up to two "junk vehicles" parked on their property, with no requirements for upkeep or concealment of the automobiles.
Attendees also called for officials to reduce the amount of visible salvage materials at local junkyards, which county ordinance states must not be stacked high enough to be visible past the fencing or vegetation that junkyards must install to obstruct scrap from view.
A handful of citizens argued that such blemishes lowered property values and repelled any businesses that might be interested in bringing their organizations — and tax dollars — to the area.
"To everybody in Chattanooga, if you say 'Rossville,' it's trash," one resident said, referencing issues related to domestic violence and drug dealing in addition to public eyesores. "It doesn't matter that there are some beautiful places, it doesn't matter that Walker County is a beautiful county; it's automatic: 'It's trash.'"
Sole Commissioner Shannon Whitfield admitted that more work needed to be done by county personnel to ensure junkyards were in compliance with the regulation for blocking scrap from view.
As for the junk vehicles, he said the matter is one he's often heard questions about. He then conducted an impromptu survey of meeting attendees to gauge what locals feel could be a desirable solution.
By a show of hands, an overwhelming majority of the approximately 70 residents present indicated that they wanted the number of junk vehicles permitted to be reduced from two to zero. A small number of attendees indicated that they would be OK if the ordinance permitted two vehicles but required them to be kept out of sight.
Whitfield stressed that the county's ordinances would first need to be changed in order to bring about any desired solutions. He added that the process has already been kickstarted through the formation of Walker's Vision 2030 Advance Team, which met for the first time last month. The team of seven will make recommendations pertaining to property values, public nuisances, property rights and future development to aid the county's effort to completely overhaul its ordinances in order to provide codes that "meet 21st century needs."
" ... We're not going to knee jerk and affect other people's lives without thinking all the way through, and that's why this team is here: to be honorable to everybody and their interests, for the best [of the] county overall," said Walker County Economic Development Director Robert Wardlaw.
Residents chided county officials for the slow pace at which those changes are being made, questioning why the problems weren't addressed when Whitfield first took office in 2017.
Whitfield alluded to other challenges, such as mitigating the county's debt, that have required attention, but added that codes and roads are the top priority for 2019.
With the help of the Vision 2030 Advance Team, the county has already begun working to inject language into its ordinance that would enable codes enforcement officers to address junk, debris and blight on commercial property, he said. The goal is to have those changes made within 90 days, said Whitfield.
He also noted that the adoption of full-time legal counsel last year is expected to speed up progress — in addition to shaving dollars from the $150,000 spent on outside legal counsel in 2017.
"I'm glad that you all were here tonight, because it's going to take a groundswell of people to get involved to make changes happen," Whitfield told attendees. "There's no one person [who] can do this on their own, so thank you for being here so we can work on these changes."
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