GRAY, Tenn. (WJHL) — One primary thing remains on the minds of people in Gray as developers of a massive housing development face their last hurdle before ground can start moving at Thursday night’s Johnson City Commission meeting.
Concern is growing that the stretch of State Route 75 on which the Keebler Annexation will be built might not be able to handle all that extra traffic.
Developer Land Star Group has pushed for the 155-acre plot near Exit 13 on Interstate 26 to become a part of Johnson City for months.
Once Land Star builds up the infrastructure, home builder D.R. Horton would put in over 350 homes and 120 townhomes on the property.
Johnson City leaders have viewed the Keebler Annexation as an important step in accommodating the city’s booming growth.
But the annexation has not been popular among neighbors of the subdivision in Gray.
At several Johnson City Planning Commission and community meetings, a top concern from people living in Gray has been the impact the hundreds of people living in the subdivision will have on traffic.
Among those is Danny Sells, a lifelong Gray resident whose property borders the annexation.
Sells has long pushed the city to look into Highway 75’s traffic situation and the extra congestion that will come from the subdivision.
“We feel that helping to control the traffic and the flow and speed of the traffic is going to go a long ways on improving the safety on this road,” Sells said.
But just one day ago — and two days before the consequential Keebler vote — Sells learned of a local push for major re-development on a road facing similar issues just an exit down the interstate.
“It pretty much was a slap in the face.”
On Tuesday, News Channel 11 reported on the plan among Johnson City, Washington County, and Jonesborough leaders to ask Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee Department of Transportation to fund road widening and traffic control measures on Boones Creek Road.
The plan would widen Boones Creek Road to four lanes with a turning lane from Christian Church Road to Boones Creek Elementary School.
The road would be two lanes with a turning lane from the school to outside Jonesborough.
After pushing for changes to 75, Sells said he was shocked Boones Creek Road was getting so much attention over 75.
“It was pretty much a slap in the face,” Sells said. “We provided information to the city commission and others yesterday, honestly giving them a heads up about what we were going to be asking.
“All of a sudden a few hours after we sent those emails out we learn that this letter has gone a couple weeks ago. We see maps that have taken time, probably months to develop, talking about a road that doesn’t impact us here in Gray.”
Sells had constantly brought up the topic at various meetings over the last few months. While city leaders have been responsive on matters regarding the aesthetics of the annexation like lot averaging and open space requirements, talking traffic has been a struggle.
“There didn’t seem to be a response,” Sells said. “There didn’t seem to be, ‘well, we’ve got to look at that, or we’ve got to study that, or yes y’all have a problem out there.’”
It did not make sense to Sells that the city could OK the development without the preliminary work to determine the traffic needs.
“Where is the pre-planning?” Sells said. “It’s obvious the city wanted to be out here. Should there not have been some planning to see if we could be ready?”
He said all indications were pointing to Gray being the focus of Johnson City’s new developments, but he now feels Boones Creek has a higher priority.
“I wish that the state had money to fix all of these roads, but I’m a realist,” Sells said. “If you have a priority one, that’s going to get funded before priority two, and how many years down the road does that put us?”
Not apples and oranges — but maybe a Honeycrisp and a Grannysmith
Johnson City City Manager Cathy Ball said she isn’t surprised Gray residents put traffic at the top of their list of concerns.
The development “will generate a large amount of traffic on a road that already has a lot of traffic, so we totally understand that the community is concerned about that,” Ball told News Channel 11 Wednesday.
But she said the process of addressing those concerns and dealing with traffic on State Route 75 overall, at least right now, is a different one than the Boones Creek corridor study.
“That’s a project of a little different nature,” she said of the study that generated the recent collaborative letter to the state asking for funding to enhance the five-mile Boones Creek Road corridor. “This one looks specifically within a targeted area based on the amount of traffic that’s generated.”
She said the Boones Creek Corridor study has been a couple of years in the making as local leaders sought to plan the entire connection between Exit 17 of Interstate 26 (Boones Creek) and the town of Jonesborough along State Route 354.
In the case of the Keebler subdivision, Landstar Development will be required to fund a traffic impact analysis once the company submits a binding subdivision plan. After that’s complete, Johnson City works with Washington County and the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), both of which have roads in the area, “and then make determinations of how to mitigate that traffic.”
The study could find a need for anything from traffic signals or road widening to deceleration lanes, all of it depending on “where entrances were to the development (and) where traffic would come out at intersections,” Ball said.
While Landstar owner Danny Karst has made a verbal commitment to put $50,000 toward a traffic light at one intersection and D.R. Horton is considering a similar contribution, Ball said the traffic impact analysis will drive any required contribution by the developer. In some cases, if the development is seen as creating a need for traffic mitigation that wouldn’t otherwise be there, a developer is required to fund an entire signal. That’s the case right now with a proposed new Aldi grocery store near Indian Trail Middle School.
“Until we get the final traffic impact analysis and we review it with the state and the county there would be no way for us to determine exactly what intersections and the amount of contribution the developer would need to pay for that.”
A significant project
Ball said the city has taken pains to include the Gray community during more than half a year of run up to Thursday’s final reading on the annexation request. More than 300 people showed up to a meeting in Gray last fall.
“We feel like we’ve gone through the process of really understanding more about the impact,” she said, adding that there has been a lot of education and public comment.
Landstar will have to provide a plat that fits the requested low-density residential zoning, “so we will know exactly what we’re getting,” Ball said.
“It’s one of the largest subdivisions the city’s seen in probably 30 years, so we take this very seriously and we appreciate the community’s participation in helping the commission make this decision. I think it’s been better because the community has understood the impact all the way from water-sewer infrastructure, providing public safety, but it is a significant project.”
Ball said city leaders expect more to follow, including in Danny Sells’s neck of the woods. That could result in something similar to the Boones Creek study at some point.
“I would suspect that we would be moving toward looking at that intersection of 75 and down that corridor in more of a corridor approach as we see more things happening.”
As the commission’s vote looms, Sells said the traffic situation on 75 is more severe than what is seen on Boones Creek Road because of the compactness of the traffic between Keebler and the neighboring Ridgeview Elementary and Daniel Boone High School.
“When you jam that traffic up, that number of vehicles up on a mile and a half compared to five miles, anybody can see what that does,” Sells said. “We have no red lights past the intersection (of Interstate 26.) We have two schools that are impacting the road here and have been for quite a long time.”
Sells plans to be at Thursday night’s meeting along with his current neighbors to plead their case for some immediate traffic improvements.
“Widening of the road is going to beneficial as well, but the lights are going to be the most immediate need that we feel for a safety standpoint here in Gray,” Sells said.
Sells is pushing for the city to indulge in Karst’s offer to get two new red lights up as soon as possible at the Sam Jenkins Road and Old Gray Road intersections.
He would like city leaders to get that stretch of 75 moved up on TDOT’s list of priority roads for repair.
Ball said the city works with TDOT on priorities for road improvements, and they have communicated the needs on 75 to TDOT.
Thursday night’s Johnson City Commission meeting starts at 6 p.m. at the Johnson City Municipal Building.