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Blessed are the Annexation Peacemakers

by Joe Sullivan

Amid all the national discord over the presidential election, a remarkable local accord hasn't gotten the accolades it deserves.

Peaceful resolution of the annexation war that has raged between the city of Knoxville and Knox County is a testament to their ability to surmount seeming intractability and also to the two men who negotiated the accord.

Disputes in Knoxville may not be anywhere on the radar screen in Stockholm, but if they were, County Commissioner Frank Leuthold and Deputy to the Mayor Gene Patterson would deserve consideration for a Nobel Prize.

When Leuthold and Patterson were named as negotiators in September, their chances of success seemed minimal. Indeed, up to that point in time, Leuthold had been assessing the prospects of the city and county ever reaching agreement on an annexation boundary issue thrust upon them by a 1998 state law as "somewhere between nil and none."

Under that law, every county was mandated to come up with a growth plan that would demarcate an Urban Growth Boundary, within which municipalities would have a free hand to annex additional territory over the next 20 years. The city promptly staked out a UGB that would have more than doubled the present 100-square-mile size of the city limits. County Commission, on the other hand, adamantly opposed any further expansion by the city into the county's 546-square-mile land area. A middle-ground proposal for a 47-square-mile UGB fashioned by a state-designated Growth Plan Coordinating Committee was spurned by both combatants. But that left them exposed to imposition of an arbitrated UGB by a panel of administrative law judges—a prospect that was abhorrent to all concerned.

After a summer full of hostilities, Mayor Victor Ashe and a panel of county commissioners agreed in September to take a stab at negotiations. And in order to shield them from the state's Sunshine Law, only one envoy was named by each side.

Against a backdrop of collective distrust and posturing, Leuthold and Patterson were privately able to establish a high degree of trust and openness in their discussions. "When there's just two of you, you don't sit there and try to posture," Leuthold says. "Also, Gene and I got along great and really opened up to each other."

"Frank can be an expansive talker, and I'm a good listener, so we make a good combination," ventures Patterson. But even though they bonded well, reaching an agreement was still a harrowing experience.

Leuthold's paramount concern was to protect county residents against involuntary subjection to city property taxes. Patterson, for his part, wasn't about to agree to close the 20-year window for city expansion that the state law mandated. Over several meetings, the two were able to agree on a framework whereby the city would retain a 47-square-mile UGB but would abstain from involuntary residential annexations for a period of time. The sticking point was how long that period would run. At a meeting on the day before Thanksgiving, Leuthold wouldn't budge from keeping it in place for the entire 20 years, while Patterson informed him that five years was as far as the city was prepared to go.

"When I left for Thanksgiving, I was really depressed. We had come so dadgum close and as we shook hands I felt he was disappointed too," Patterson recalls.

At midday on the following Tuesday, Ashe informed this columnist that the negotiations had reached an impasse and that the three-judge panel in Nashville was beckoning. Later in the day, however, Patterson reported that Leuthold had made a fresh proposal and the negotiations were back on again.

Leuthold's fresh proposal was to shorten the moratorium to 10 years. He only arrived at that after starting, on Monday, to compose a letter to Patterson regretfully reiterating his reasons for insistence on 20 years. So what made him change his mind? "You could say I was visited by an angel," he jests. But then, in a reflective way, he adds, "Every action has a reaction, and I found myself asking 'What are the consequences if I do certain things?' It became clear to me that Nashville will open it back up, and I had to ask how I could take their concerns into consideration and still pass muster [locally]."

Even after the narrowing of the gap, agreement didn't come easily. Attempts to bridge it by providing for a five-year moratorium in some sectors of the UGB and 10 years in others were discarded as too unwieldy. And there was haggling over the definition of a residence and of provisions for voluntary annexations. So when city and county officials were summoned to appear before the three-judge panel in Nashville last Thursday, the two sides were still apart.

After some jawboning by presiding Judge Marion Wall about the pitfalls of a protracted arbitration process, agreement was finally reached on a moratorium of seven years. Thus, an estimated 20,000 citizens residing within the UGB will become subject to annexation starting in 2008—but that's seven years later than probably would have been the case in the absence of an accord.

City Council was quick to approve the agreement on Tuesday evening. While County Commission votes can never be taken for granted, all indications point toward respectful approval of Leuthold's recommendation there as well. Along with resolving boundary wars, the agreement also calls for a $7 million county contribution to job-creating capital projects within the city's Empowerment Zone. Dear to Ashe, it gives the mayor appointive power over two of what will become 11 seats on the board of the Knox County Development Corp. All this in the name of coordination of the city's and the county's economic development efforts, which have been fragmented up to now.

And if city and county governments can reach agreement on the most divisive issue facing them (i.e. annexation), surely other areas of cooperation should be attainable. Without identifying any specifics, Ashe lists parks, roads and support of the arts as areas that fit the profile now that, "we've removed a constant source of irritation."

Patterson, of course, couldn't have gotten anywhere without the mayor's concurrence. But as he prepares to take his leave of city government for a return to television news (as anchorman at Channel 6), Patterson acknowledges that negotiating with Ashe was often just as tough as negotiating with Leuthold. So he gets double credit for performing double duty.

December 14, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 50
© 2000 Metro Pulse