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Jackson’s planning director departs after a short but good run

fr geraldgreenIn a mere four years, Jackson County Planner Gerald Green has wrestled with just about every controversial land-use issue you could possibly come across in the mountains.

Steep slopes, cell towers, fracking, landslide mapping, gated subdivisions, open space, groundwater absorption, storm run-off, college student housing and unregulated commercial sprawl.

A glutton for punishment, Green had proposed a review of the county’s junk car ordinance next, and maybe zoning for heavy-manufacturing sites after that. 

But he won’t be getting to those after all. He’s taken a new job in Knoxville overseeing the Metropolitan Planning Commission, which handles planning for the city of Knoxville and Knox County as a whole. 

At his new job, Green will be over a staff of 22. That’s a far cry from his job now as Jackson’s lead planner with a staff of only 1.5 — perhaps the smallest staff of any department head.

And that’s been an issue for Green.

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“I often felt I was on my own,” he said. 

While the public as a whole placed high value on protecting the landscape and natural resources — and were properly grateful to Green for his work in that area — Green didn’t always enjoy that same support from county administration, according to sources familiar with the issue.

In particular, making sure the spirit and intent of the county’s ordinances are upheld on the enforcement side takes teamwork, and that wasn’t always there, Green said.

The county employees who did that job — deciding what development permits are needed for a given project and whether it meets the criteria of the county’s ordinances — worked on a different floor and under a different department head, namely Permit  and Code Enforcement Director Tony Elders.

While Green is most intimately aware of criteria in the county’s planning ordinances and development rules, he wasn’t routinely invited to weigh in — and was often unaware of what was even coming across the permitters’ desks — unless it’s a larger subdivision or development in one of the commercial planning districts.

Green became siloed off from the permit department after a restructuring in 2011, in hopes of providing a more seamless permit process for developers.

“We were getting a lot of pushback from local builders about having to go a lot of places to get a permit and not knowing where to go first,” County Manager Chuck Wooten explained. “It was not an attempt to diminish planning’s role at all.”

Wooten said he had not heard of anything negative that was driving Green’s decision to leave.

“He’s never made that comment to me,” Wooten said.

Green had requested an additional planning employee — given the number of ordinances and planning initiatives he’s been asked to tackle of late — but Wooten recommended commissioners wait and see if planning duties were truly warranted after the new Cullowhee land-use rules came online.

Commissioners didn’t follow Wooten’s recommendation and chose to give Green the additional planning staffer last week, prior to the announcement he was leaving.

Green has spearheaded a multitude of planning efforts that will leave their thumbprint on the county for years to come. Green shepherded eight ordinances to the finish line during his short tenure — a few crafted from whole cloth, most substantial rewrites.

And all the while, he navigated the choppy waters of shifting political winds and changing philosophical views from the public at large and the county commissioners.

Jackson is progressive on land-use planning compared to its peers. It’s the only county west of Asheville that attempts to guide and regulate growth outside town limits, with three distinct land-use planning districts.

It’s got the most restrictive steep slope rules and subdivision standards in the west. It’s the only county that considers things like viewsheds and groundwater in its development regulations.

 “We are way ahead of the curve as a rural county in terms of developing ordinances to protect our mountains, and whoever is hired to take his place will need to have a similar appreciation for these mountains and interest in protecting them,” Commissioner Vicki Greene said. “He is going to be an incredibly hard act to follow.” 

Gerald Green said it was rewarding to work somewhere the public was actively involved in planning issues. 

“People care very much about their community here, and that is great to see,” Green said. “They are willing to take an active role in deciding what the best choices are for their county.”

He likely had his own opinions, but never wore them on his sleeve. It was hard to ferret out just where he stood, even when straddling a deeply divided planning board, sometimes hostile public and even resistant colleagues.

Green’s mild manner had a knack for dissipating tensions over planning issues.

“He had the right combination of technical expertise and ability to translate complex issues to laymen and an approachable personality,” Greene said of Green.

His secret?

“I am good at what I do. I have years of experience and know my profession and know how to do things … and I am a hard worker,” Green said.

Green went to grad school at the University of Tennessee and worked his first planning job in Knoxville. He was  most recently working for the city of Asheville planning department before coming to Jackson County.

The Jackson County Planning Board will help vet candidates, and commissioners will give final approval on the new hire. 

— Staff writer Holly Kays contributed to this report

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