What's the Plan?
Knox County is preparing to embark on its most ambitious planning update in a generation. On the table: growth, density, infrastructure and rural preservation.
by jesse fox mayshark • january 30, 2019
Jeff welch, director of the transportation planning organization, at a public meeting on the hardin valley mobility plan on jan. 15, 2019.
The evening of Jan. 15 was gray and chilly, dipping into the mid 30s. But that didn’t discourage about 300 people from crowding into the gym at Hardin Valley Academy, with a line that stretched out into the lobby.
Revamping a growth plan that hasn't been touched in nearly 20 years.
What brought out the crowd on a Tuesday night was not a basketball game or a school play but a public meeting on transportation planning for the fastest-growing area of Knox County. Waiting to reach the registration table, one man turned to a friend and said with a knowing grin, “Everybody in line here was late because they were stuck in traffic.”
Hardin Valley is just one of the communities across the county contending with the pressures of growth and development. In places from Ritta to Fountain City to Powell to Rocky Hill, rush-hour traffic backs up on roads that were built for rural populations and now serve thousands of residents in rapidly multiplying subdivisions.
Knox County’s population has grown since 2000 from 382,000 to an estimated 461,000, a 21 percent increase. What hasn’t changed in that time is the county’s master planning.
When Knox County Commission voted Monday night to reopen the county’s Growth Policy Plan for the first time in nearly 20 years, it set the stage for a comprehensive update of planning countywide.
It is sure to be an involved process, complicated by wrinkles in state law and the necessity of bringing in representatives from the City of Knoxville, the Town of Farragut and unincorporated Knox County.
But it also presents the first opportunity in a generation for county government -- and the citizens it represents -- to broadly consider questions of growth, infrastructure, the preservation of rural areas and how to encourage new models of development.
“That’s a discussion that’s good to have, and we haven’t had it since the last time (the growth plan) was passed,” said Kevin Murphy, a community advocate for planning and preservation in northeast Knox County.
Revise It or Scrap It?
Coming into Monday’s Commission meeting, the proposal on the agenda was not to update the Growth Policy Plan but to pass a resolution asking the state Legislature for permission to abolish it.
The Legislature passed a law in 1998 requiring all counties to adopt a growth plan, which among other things designated all areas of a county as either rural, urban or “planned growth.” Different restrictions were placed on different areas, with rural designated for the lowest level of possible development.
The primary impetus for that law was to contain the rapid annexation of unincorporated areas by some Tennessee cities -- in particular, Knoxville under former Mayor Victor Ashe, who pursued an aggressive strategy of growth through annexation. By defining an “urban growth boundary,” the growth plan specified areas open to future annexation and effectively fenced off the rest of the county from city acquisition.
A new state law in 2014 completely changed the rules on annexation, leaving cities able to annex only with the consent of affected property owners. But the growth plan’s rules on density and development remain in effect outside city limits. The state law envisioned counties updating their growth plans every three years, but Knox County’s has never been revisited since its original adoption.
In 2003, the county adopted a General Plan through the Metropolitan Planning Commission that was built on the boundaries set by the growth plan. That plan has also not been updated since.
"In my opinion the Knox County-Knoxville-Farragut Growth Policy Plan is obsolete and outdated.” – Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs
That’s why some county officials and developers have in recent years called for scrapping the growth plan altogether -- something that could only theoretically be done with state permission. At Monday’s meeting, County Mayor Glenn Jacobs added his voice to that chorus.
“In my opinion the Knox County-Knoxville-Farragut Growth Policy Plan is obsolete and outdated,” Jacobs told commissioners. He noted that a lot had changed since 2000: “Rural areas are no longer rural. The city is overhauling its zoning and coding policies. And forced annexation is no longer an issue.”
Jacobs suggested asking the state for permission to eliminate the growth plan and incorporating parts of it into a new General Plan. He was seconded by attorney Arthur Seymour Jr., who often appears before County Commission and City Council representing developers.
“I think it is time to get rid of the Growth Policy Plan, which hampers our growth and hampers the future development of Knox County,” Seymour said.
But several community representatives at the meeting, including Murphy, asked Commission to revise both the growth plan and the General Plan. “It’s time to update it to be useful and not just throw it out,” Murphy told commissioners.
After several hours of sometimes circuitous discussion, that was the direction Commission opted for. Only commissioners Randy Smith and Brad Anders expressed support for asking the Legislature for relief from the growth plan.
“Nobody’s wanting to do away with long-term growth planning,” said Smith, who emphasized that he favors a revamped General Plan to allow for more mixed-use, walkable and higher density development in the county. “We just want to get un-handcuffed from the state.”
But Commissioner John Schoonmaker said that 30 other counties in the state have already updated their growth plans by following the existing law, without seeking a state exemption.
“At this point, I don’t see the need to involve the state of Tennessee in a Knox County decision,” he said.
What Comes Next
The state law that mandated the Growth Policy Plan also spells out a fairly complex mechanism for amending it. It requires the reconvening of a Growth Policy Coordinating Committee, which includes the mayors of the county, the city and Farragut, as well as representatives from utilities, the school system, the local Soil Conservation District, the Knoxville Chamber, developers and homeowners.
The amended plan then must be adopted by the legislative bodies of the three local governments.
Schoonmaker proposed that the county formally reconvene the committee. After previous motions from Smith and Anders failed, Schoonmaker’s passed unanimously.
"It is important for us to be a partner in the growth plan.” – Farragut Vice Mayor Louise Povlin
Commissioners also agreed that they would work with the Knoxville-Knox County Planning staff to hire a consultant to begin work on an update of the General Plan, to go hand in hand with the growth plan update.
Louise Povlin, the vice mayor of Farragut, attended Monday’s meeting and told commissioners Farragut would be happy to participate in revising the growth plan. “It is important for us to be a partner in the growth plan,” Povlin said. “We are very much interested in being part of the process.”
In an email statement on Tuesday, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero said she was also open to revisiting the plan.
“We’re open to discussing an update to the Growth Policy Plan,” Rogero said. “I haven’t been contacted yet by County Commission or Mayor Jacobs, but I look forward to talking with them to understand the mechanics and goals of the process that they are envisioning.”
After the Commission meeting Monday, Jacobs said he would abide by Commission’s wishes even though he would have preferred to get rid of the growth plan completely.
“I think we’re all trying to get to the same place,” he said, “it’s just a matter of how we get there.”
Commission Chair Hugh Nystrom placed the initial resolution to seek a state exemption on Monday’s agenda. On Tuesday he said he was glad the discussion had propelled forward the issue of county planning. He said he will send letters within the next week to all of the required entities inviting them to reconvene the coordinating committee.
“It’s been 20 years since the growth plan was developed,” Nystrom said. “Everybody we heard from believed we needed to update the plan. The hard part was deciding how we were going to do it.”
Nystrom said he will also bring a resolution next month to allocate funds to the Knoxville-Knox County Planning agency to hire a consultant to guide the General Plan.
Of course, there are many hard parts left to come. Broad agreement on the need for an update doesn’t mean there’s consensus on what needs to change and how. But Murphy said he was encouraged by agreement among commissioners that the process will need extensive public engagement and discussion.
“I do feel that the county commissioners are really committed to wanting public input,” Murphy said.
Nystrom agreed. “It’s clear that we've got to hear from every side on this one,” he said. “That’s one thing we heard very clearly.”