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Opinion: Systemic changes must happen

By Krystle James, former chair of Cheatham County Democrats and county resident


Editor's note: This article has been updated to remove non-opinions and information that could not be independently verified.


Cheatham County isn’t safe under the supervision of Franklin Wilkinson, building commissioner. A community staple in the building department since 2015, Wilkinson is tasked with “promoting the public health, safety, morals, convenience, order, prosperity and general welfare of the citizens of Cheatham County by enforcing the locally adopted Building Codes, Property Maintenance Standards, Zoning Regulations and Subdivision Regulations in the unincorporated areas of Cheatham County.” A concerned citizen or building applicant can find these regulations on the CheathamCountyTN.gov website under the tabs: Mayor & Departments and Building & Codes. One of these standards, the Property Maintenance Standards, “is a program designed to maintain a high level of property maintenance standards and reduce or eliminate the undesirable nuisances, hazards and effects associated with blighting and neglect of property.”


For years an elderly veteran in my neighborhood maintained an incompliant building on his 16-acre property, surrounded by mounds of trash. I brought my concerns to local Commissioner, Diana Pike-Lovell, Mayor McCarver, the Cheatham County Commission, the Sheriff's Department and Building & Codes.


The 2018 International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC) available under the Cheatham County Adopted Codes delegates authority to the code official to determine when a structure is “found unfit for human occupancy or is found unlawful.” The Cheatham County Zoning Resolutions Section 9.020 specifically designates the Building Commissioner as the Enforcement Officer. And so a multi-year struggle to advocate for the safety of this elderly veteran, EMS services and the public health and welfare ensued. Filed complaints and email campaigns forged small victories in achieving a legal residence on the property and installation of a septic system, but the threat of the unstable building remained looming over all of the improvements.


Like the Little Engine that Could, I persevered in petitioning the Cheatham County Mayor and Commission to address the root problems of mental health and the Building Commissioner’s unwillingness to exercise options to condemn the structure and remove the safety hazard. 


And then, just like that, the building collapsed on itself and fell near the newly constructed tiny home. A tiny home that had been built from generous donations by the Cheatham County community.


The IPMC 108.1 defines an unsafe structure as “one that is found to be dangerous to life, health, property or safety of the public or the occupants … because such structure is so damaged, decayed, dilapidated, structurally unsafe or of such faulty construction or unstable foundation, that partial or complete collapse is possible.”


Fortunately, the elderly veteran and his roommate survived the incident. I know for certain that had I caved into the county’s attempt to quiet my dissent, no progress would have ever been made and our neighbor would most certainly have expired under the governance of a Republican majority government that approaches safety with an individualistic mentality. 


When only the symptom is cured though, the root of the problem prevails. It has now been eight weeks since the collapse. Our veteran has diligently constructed a shrine to an empty dog igloo, as the building continues to crumble in the background. There is no apparent action from the building commissioner.


This evolving tragedy is not unique to my neighborhood. Throughout Cheatham County, there is a need for updated improvements in residential homes. Progressive counties throughout the U.S. have harnessed programs that help elderly and economically disadvantaged residents make energy and environmentally friendly upgrades that benefit the entire community. When the government tackles an issue, instead of sweeping it under the rug and spinning it into a Hallmark story, we all benefit. 


Cheatham County is not safe under the supervision of Franklin Wilkinson, building commissioner. Systemic changes need to be made for the welfare of our community. If you have an issue, please do not let the county stonewall you into silence. Like the May cicadas, the more we come together and make demands for a better future, the more we are heard. Codes enforcement concerns can be submitted to codes@cheathamcountytn.gov.

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