'We Want to See the Big Picture'
An alliance of residents and civic groups across Knox County comes together to push for better planning and infrastructure.
by jesse fox mayshark • july 8, 2019
From left, kim frazier, Kevin murphy and lisa starbuck of the newly formed Knox county planning alliance.
The procession of speakers at a public meeting on Knox County growth policies late last month was notable for its narrative coherence.
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs is seeking to reduce restrictions on development.
One after another, a half-dozen residents from many corners of the county walked through a series of bullet points on why and how local government should do a better job of planning for more people, more development and more pressure on local infrastructure.
“That was impressive,” said County Commissioner John Schoonmaker, who watched the meeting from the audience along with fellow commissioners Carson Dailey and Eveyln Gill. “I think it’s great that the community’s involved.”
The group helpfully provided print-outs of its prepared presentation to the members of the Knox County Growth Policy Coordinating Committee, which includes the mayors of Knoxville, Knox County and Farragut, as well as representatives from the school board, local utilities and the Knoxville Chamber.
It also provided a name for itself: the Knox County Planning Alliance (KCPA). It is a new and potentially potent coalition that aims to elevate the growth debates above the development-by-development fights that typically pit developers against neighbors.
“We’re not in it just to identify problems parcel by parcel,” said Kim Frazier, who has for several years been vocal about growth issues in West Knox County as head of Hardin Valley Planning Advocates. “We want to see the big picture.”
Like Frazier, the other members of the new alliance who spoke at the June 25 meeting are familiar faces at meetings of the Planning Commission, County Commission and City Council. The difference, Frazier said, is that now they’re all together.
“For me, it’s connecting with people who are experiencing the same land-use decision issues, lack-of-infrastructure issues, poor planning issues, and kind of sharing what we’ve experienced and learning from that,” Frazier said in an interview before the meeting. “And then identifying not just the short-term fixes, but the long-term fixes.”
The member groups in the alliance besides Frazier’s are the Northshore Corridor Association, the French Broad Preservation Association, the Northeast Knox Preservation Association, the South Knox County group Keep the Urban Wilderness Peaceful, Scenic Knoxville, Community Forum and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Kevin Murphy of the Northeast Knox association said the alliance wants to bring in more groups. “We’re trying to figure out how do we communicate and bring in more people,” he said. “There are other people who should be at least aware of the information we’re generating.”
Schoonmaker said the coalition was already off to a good start.
“It’s good that it’s a broad section from the Northshore Drive corridor to South Knoxville to East Knoxville to Hardin Valley, the whole area,” he said.
Planning for Growth
The group came together in response to County Commission’s discussions earlier this year about the need to either revise or get rid of the county’s state-mandated Growth Policy Plan, which was adopted in 2001 by the county, the City of Knoxville and the Town of Farragut.
That plan was partly aimed at setting boundaries on city annexation of unincorporated territory, which was a matter of great local contention during the finger-annexation era of former Mayor Victor Ashe. But the state law that requires Tennessee counties to have a growth plan was also intended to preserve rural areas.
The annexation issue has been defused by further changes in state law that have made it difficult for cities to annex property without the owner’s consent. So that part of the growth plan is now largely irrelevant, although it serves as a guide to areas that are likely to further urbanize with or without annexation.
But the plan’s restrictions on development in designated rural areas remain intact and have started to chafe. Some developers and county commissioners have called for changes in those areas to accommodate future growth.
“With a few simple steps, you could put in motion an opportunity to develop plans and policies that will benefit everyone who lives and works in Knox County.” – Lisa Starbuck, Knox County Planning Alliance, addressing the Growth Policy Coordinating Committee
This winter, County Commission debated whether to ask the state for permission to opt out of the growth plan altogether -- a position advocated for County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, among others.
Instead, Commission directed Jacobs to reconvene the growth policy committee, which is required by state law to approve any changes in the growth plan. Jacobs did so and introduced an amendment that would basically remove the growth plan’s authority to restrict development and leave those decisions up to the county’s normal zoning process.
“When I look at the current plan, what it has done to some extent is it’s really prevented cluster development, high-density in appropriate areas where the infrastructure can support it,” Jacobs said at the first meeting of the committee. “Instead we just have scattered stuff everywhere.”
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero indicated at that meeting that she would support the county’s ability to set its own growth policies. But she also urged the development of an updated countywide general plan.
“It is imperative that Knox County develop its own smart growth plan that preserves rural land for agriculture, preserves land for business and economic development, and manages the construction of new housing so education and public services can be delivered in a fiscally-responsible way,” Rogero said.
The issues involved are complex enough that the discussion, significant as it may be for the county’s future, has not so far drawn much public attention. Except from the members of the KCPA.
What They Want
Most of the residential groups represented by KCPA have advocated for or against specific issues in their areas.
For Frazier’s group, it’s been transportation improvements in Hardin Valley. For the Northshore Corridor Association, it was the controversial development at Tooles Bend. For the East Knox County groups, there was a decade-plus fight over rezoning land for
Midway Business Park and broader concerns over preserving the area’s rural character.
In approaching the Growth Policy Plan, the group is urging Jacobs, Rogero and the other members of the coordinating committee to revise the plan rather than neutering it, which is what Jacobs’ amendment would essentially do.
“This committee has the power to accomplish a lot for the good of Knox County,” Lisa Starbuck of the Northeast Knox Preservation Association told committee members. “With a few simple steps, you could put in motion an opportunity to develop plans and policies that will benefit everyone who lives and works in Knox County.”
One common point of concern for residents and developers alike is the sometimes confusing relationship between the multiple layers of the county’s plans. The Growth Policy Plan designates areas as Rural, Planned Growth and Urban Growth. The county’s General Plan, which hasn’t been updated since 2003, established a 30-year vision for development in the county. Separate sector plans for different areas of the county add more detail and are updated more frequently.
Starbuck outlined some of KCPA’s recommendations for the committee:
-- Instead of Jacobs’ amendment, adopt a substitute motion reaffirming the existing growth plan;
-- Revise and condense the growth plan into a set of 10 key principles and simultaneously adopt an updated, streamlined general plan for the county;
-- Consolidate maps from all of the sector plans under the general plan into a single, user-friendly document;
-- Allow amendments to the sector plans only every three months, instead of on a case-by-case basis, so that local officials and residents can have a better grasp of the impact of proposed changes.
“We believe this proposal is a good way to balance different interests,” Starbuck said. “It gives the county flexibility in defining what does occur in the rural area, yet it places guide rails on how intense that will be.”
Frazier told the committee that KCPA had come together out of a shared recognition of the consequences of growth that has outstripped infrastructure, and the inadequate observance of existing plans.
“I care, because I live in the middle of the aftermath of poor planning and lack of coordinated infrastructure caused by land-use decisions that directly opposed the zonings and the sector plans that were in place,” she said.
Several members of Keep the Urban Wilderness Peaceful in South Knoxville who are fighting Tom Boyd’s proposed Ancient Lore development off Chapman Highway also encouraged the committee to strengthen rather than weaken the Growth Policy Plan.
And David Vandergriff, an agriculture extension agent for Knox County, warned that protecting rural land is still important even as much of it is converted to residential use.
“A lot of the (undeveloped) land that’s out there is currently zoned agriculture, and agriculture needs a place to be,” Vandergriff said.
The Growth Policy Plan Coordinating Committee will meet next on Aug. 13 to consider Jacobs’ proposed amendment.
UPDATE 7/8/19: This story has been updated to reflect that Keep the Urban Wilderness Peaceful has also joined the Knox County Planning alliance.