Lakeland’s new planning director describes vision, priorities

Tom Skehan
Tom Skehan

Tom Skehan is the new planning pirector for the City of Lakeland. He took time this week to speak with the Bartlett Express about his background and what he sees as the direction for Lakeland’s future.

Where are you from?

Well my dad was in the Air Force, so we transferred quite a bit. All of my family lives in Fort Worth, which is what I call the better side of the “Dallas-Fort Worth Metro-Mess.” But for about the last fifteen years I’ve lived in Dyersburg. Since moving to Tennessee, I’ve worked for the state of Tenn. in their local planning assistance office. We did contract planning — worked with communities on a contractual basis. And then for the last three years I worked for the development district in Jackson, Tenn. doing the same thing. But I like living in Dyersburg. There was a time when I would tell people I live in Dyersburg, work in Jackson, and go to school in Memphis.

Speaking of school, what is your educational background? And also, are you married, do you have kids, and do you go to a church here?

I have a master’s degree in urban studies from Texas Christian University. Got a little bit sidetracked and went to work for Boys and Girls Clubs for a little while. Then I got back into planning and during that time with the state, I got a master’s degree from the University of Memphis in city and regional planning. I am divorced. I have one daughter and four grandchildren who live with me in Dyersburg, and I attend Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Dyersburg.

Why were you interested in this position?

Well, for about the last five to seven years I’ve been beginning to feel the need to focus all of my training on one community. When you work as a planner that serves many different communities, you come in, you do what you can, you try to give them some direction, and then you leave. And while that gives you a lot of experience in terms of dealing with different personalities, different communities, different elected officials, changes in administration and how do you adapt, and how do you begin to shape a planning direction that may have been going one way at one point in time and is going a different way now, you do that and leave, and you don’t have that follow-through.

Sometimes if, say, for example, I was working with XYZ community and my supervisor decided, “We really want you not to work there and work in another community,” then, you don’t have a sense of getting a feeling of accomplishment and seeing things through fruition. So, again, going back about five, seven years, I thought, “maybe I need to focus on one community.”

Lakeland advertised six months ago thereabout. I understood at first that there are many challenges here in terms of the development pressure, and even though we’ve gone through somewhat of a recession and development dropped off, things are beginning to pick back up. I welcome that challenge. I welcome the challenge of dealing with, and I don’t mean this in a despairing way, but a more sophisticated electoral, public, and commission profile. They are focused on putting planning techniques to the test, exploring new ideas — not necessarily always being cutting edge, but … what can give us, the City of Lakeland, a competitive advantage over Arlington, or Bartlett or the unincorporated areas.

What are your priorities as planning director?

I think my number one priority is to begin to understand the community values, and how to take those values and accomplish what the citizens and the city want to accomplish in terms of the potential and the future for Lakeland. Is that no growth? Is it moderate growth? Is it high growth? I mean there are a lot of different things. And right now, I don’t want to bring “The World According to Tom” here because I don’t think that’s the role of a planner. I think there’s a need to be sensitive to the public. I think there’s a need to be cognizant of where the hiccups are.

We have a fairly recent development code (land development regulations) that haven’t been fully tested and we’re beginning to see where maybe that needs to be fine-tuned. Planning is a very dynamic process. I think the principals of planning can be long-term. Five-, 15i, 20-year plans are very good in terms of shaping direction based on community values and just different analyses you go with.

If we’re going to be in a flat population trend for the next 20 years, then that’s something we really have to consider. On the other hand, if our population is going to double every five years, that dictates a different planning strategy. So, we have to look at that. But on the other hand, I think planners have to keep a pulse on what’s working and what’s not. Be it density of development, be it infrastructure, be it minor tweaks.

Are there any specific projects that you plan on tackling soon? I know your immediate priority is community involvement, but do you have anything specific you want to try to get off the ground?

Right now, I’m just trying to react to what’s coming in — and that’s not a good position for a planner to be in — but you have to hit the ground running. You’ve got at the last Planning Commission Meeting, we had a rezoning proposal where the public, that showed up, was opposed to the rezoning. But it fit our comprehensive plan, but I certainly understand people’s ideas about trying to protect property values and what not. There’s two developments associated with that rezoning that haven’t been proposed yet, but are going to be on the agenda either next month or the following month — probably the following month. Working with the middle school site and what’s going to happen around that … from a planning perspective, aside form the layout and what not, if the school goes in, that’s going to create a demand in the area in terms of housing and businesses.

How much of Lakeland is undeveloped, and what are the plans to work on that? That’s been something brought up several times by the “Concerned Citizens of Lakeland” group on Facebook. That’s people who oppose costly school expansions in the city.

I don’t know the exact number of acres that is undeveloped. A large part of Lakeland is undeveloped. A large part of Lakeland is zoned in those undeveloped areas — agriculture, low-density housing — which tends to, if you freeze time right now, if it’s zoned one way, then it’s going to develop that way. But of course, zoning as well as planning is very dynamic.

Dealing with these land development regulations, we have a lot of flexibility in terms of more mixed use approach, in terms of how a parcel of land is developed with  —let me show you on this last rezoning. (He pulled out a map and pointed to two spots on the map.) Here they came in and asked for one type of residential zoning here, here you’ve got your open space requirements. In another scenario, there could be commercial development sprinkled in or institutional, so Lakeland has a strategy now to look more in terms of providing not what some people consider the standard Euclidean zoning, which is single-purpose. There’s more of a dynamic sense of land uses going on in any one development.

This last weekend I looked at the Lakeland Development Corporation’s Strategic Plan, and obviously we have some areas along 64 with Canada Road, Fletcher Trace, Chamber’s Chapel, the Interstate interchange, up Canada Road, the Canada Road-Highway 70 [interchange], and then the interchanges we have available on 385. There’s a lot of play there in terms of different types of development.

Is there any update on developers’ interest in land near the planned new middle school?

Nothing’s been submitted. There’s been some ideas discussed. In terms of the potential for development, there are a lot of, in the areas around Canada Road North of Highway 70, there’s some heavy concentrations of conservation areas, and that’s going to impact and influence the type of development, because Lakeland wants to preserve a lot of those conservation areas. So that has to be taken under advisement by a developer. But we haven’t seen anything proposed yet.

Skehan can be reached at (901) 867-2717 or

Written by Mac Trammell, special to the Express. Contact him at