As has been the topic of discussion for years, escalated in recent months following Council’s denial of needed funds for the Oak Ridge School system, this city is in need of new revenue in order to adequately fund the level of services desired.
At last night’s City Council meeting, two Council members (Abbatiello and Mosby) changed their votes on zoning for a new Holiday Inn Express, having voted in favor of the project on first reading. Beehan and Golden maintained their opposition, as evidenced by their “no” votes on first reading last month. Given the neighborhood opposition, it was a controversial subject.
Just last week, the Industrial Development Board voted for a 10-year, million-dollar tax abatement for National Fitness Center, a new health club that is already open, operating, and has put one existing health club (Paragon) out of business. Certainly, tax abatements can be used to lure targeted industries that bring employment, or retail businesses that increase the City’s sales tax collections, but the new health club appears to be a zero-sum gain. In Tennessee, no sales taxes are collected on gym memberships, and the jobs brought by National Fitness are not exactly of the caliber to merit a million-dollar lure. Had the IDB said no, would they have closed their doors and left town?
Oak Ridge needs to increase revenues to sustain City services, including traditions such as education, dating back to the City’s earliest years, as well as more recent developments like the rowing course that now attracts regattas of national prominence (for which $100,000 was approved in the Council meeting, following the zoning vote).
We cannot continue the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed without growth. Yet, with every proposal that would bring some measure of added self-sufficiency (translation: not extorting payments from DOE, but generating revenue based on added value), there is a contingent of opposition.
Last night’s Oak Ridger carried an old story with a fresh pulse: development of a portion of the Three Bends region along Melton Hill Lake, designated just under six years ago in a surprise move as a “conservation and wildlife management area” by then-Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson.
It caught the City off guard because parcels 14 (Gallaher Bend) and 15 (Solway Bend) had been designated as self-sufficency parcels by DOE on maps dating back to the 1980’s, when annual assistance payments were ended under the Atomic Energy Communities Act.
Without question, the miles of gently rolling lakefront — once farmland, before the Manhattan Project and later, Oak Ridge — would constitute some of the most valuable residential real estate in the region, if available.Â A few dozen million-dollar lakefront homes would surely boost the tax base sufficiently to fund the school sytem, police and fire protection, and keep the library open without pitting one against the other, as occurred this year.
Despite the fact that just one of the three bends would bring enormous change to the City’s economic health, while leaving miles and miles of undisturbed lakefront and forest for conservation and research purposes, expect a fight.
“This land belongs to everyone,” they’ll say, “it’s wrong to put it in private hands.”Â But remember, just 65 years ago these lands were in private hands — taken by federal agents from families with names like Freels and Gallaher for the wartime project.Â If the land is no longer essential to national defense, it should be returned to private hands through the city that has long endured a federal presence with minimal compenation for the land it occupies.
Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation (AFORR, in this acronym-addicted city) notified Mayor David Bradshaw by letter last June that they had convened a meeting on the subject of the Three Bends’ future; the Mayor responded with a bit of a (well-deserved) smackdown of the group’s proceeding without City input or notice.
Last May, Council showed themselves unwilling to raise taxes to sustain services; in this case, education was the ox that was gored.Â Last night, four members (a majority) showed themselves unwilling to grow the tax base in the face of NIMBY opposition.
Will they stand up to those who oppose development of what would be, without question, the most valuable residential property in the City?Â With more than enough land to satisfy the needs of both development and conservation, will they stand firm in advocating for the best interest of this City four years from now, when the conservation agreement expires?
Or, will they simply point to the strategic plan and refuse to maintain those things that Oak Ridgers have treasured for so many years?
Four years will be too long to wait for the Oak Ridge Schools, but if we as a City do not plan for the future, it may be too late for the services you hold dear as well.