Election Issues: Land Use
As early voting begins, City Council candidates discuss their approaches to rezoning decisions and redevelopment priorities.
City Council members spend a significant amount of time on land use issues, from contentious rezoning battles to redevelopment efforts to zoning appeals. Their decisions help shape the city’s landscape.
City Council members spend a lot of time on zoning matters, which sometimes place them in the middle of disputes between developers and area residents.
Compass recently asked the candidates for the five City Council seats that will be on the ballot their positions on several land use topics. Their responses have been edited for brevity.
City elections are nominally nonpartisan, which means candidates aren’t identified by party affiliation on the ballot. In recent cycles, candidates have seldom even mentioned their party allegiances. That’s changed this year.
The five challengers — Elizabeth Murphy (1st District), Kim Smith (2nd), Nick Ciparro (3rd), Jim Klonaris (4th) and Garrett Holt (6th) — are backed by the Knox County Republican Party and are running on a unified platform.
The incumbents — Tommy Smith (1st District), Andrew Roberto (2nd), Seema Singh (3rd), Lauren Rider (4th) and Gwen McKenzie (6th) — are Democrats but they’re running more independent campaigns.
Early voting begins today at six locations across the city. Election Day is Nov. 2.
A developer has proposed a project in your district that would bring in good jobs, but neighboring residents oppose the development. How would you approach the situation?
Elizabeth Murphy (1st District challenger):
“Since listening to all sides is critical for finding resolution, I'd set up a meeting in which all involved parties would be invited to attend. Hopefully in doing so a mutually agreed resolution that all are comfortable with could then be found.”
Tommy Smith (1st District incumbent):
“Property owners should be able to build on their property according to the city ordinances, but if the development requires rezoning, nearby residents get a voice. It is important for property developers and builders, both residential or commercial, to have consistent guidelines in order to plan. Zoning for future land use is based on sector plans, which include multiple opportunities for community input. Like most things, being proactive about land use is better than being reactive.”
Kim Smith (2nd District challenger):
“It is important to listen to all sides. Different perspectives bring
different viewpoints which can improve the proposal. All sides must
be encouraged to not look at this antagonistically and we can try to
seek a result where a side doesn’t feel like they ‘lost.’”
Andrew Roberto (2nd District incumbent):
“This scenario has occurred many times over the four years I’ve served on Council and I have a record of addressing each instance in the same way. First, I encourage public participation and discussion by bringing the neighborhood and the developer together for a meeting and discussion about the proposed project. I look for ways to find a path forward that works for everyone; if that is not possible, then I make my decision on a case-by-case basis weighing the concerns of the neighbors and the benefits offered by the proposal.”
Nick Ciparro (3rd District challenger):
“This takes finesse. I would meet with the residents and hear why they oppose it, and address the situation with the developer. There are usually compromises to be found in most situations. At the end of the day, you have to do what is good for your district, not pretend you represent the entire city. The people in the area are the ones who have to live with whatever they are being handed, not someone from the other side of the city.”
Seema Singh (3rd District incumbent):
“Bringing the developer into an inclusive conversation with the residents, with an eye toward compromise on both sides, is the first step. The integrity of the neighborhood should be preserved within the reasonable needs of the community at large. If there is a default stakeholder to serve in this process, it is the needs of the community at large.”
Jim Klonaris (4th District challenger):
“New and different perspectives have the propensity to reveal third alternatives, and these occur from open and transparent conversations. It is always important to listen to all sides and I’m a firm believer in advocating to create win-win solutions. I would always encourage different perspectives and hope that others would do the same before locking down on an opinion.”
Lauren Rider (4th District incumbent):
“This is the predominant job of Council. Jobs and housing, where residents live, are both vital. Zoning is a tool to mediate compatible and complementary land use. I meet with both sides to listen to concerns and mediate a dialogue between property owners and residents. Often concerns can be addressed to create support for proposed projects. As a Council member, I have successfully mediated several zoning changes between adjoining property owners. Communication is key to a better outcome for everyone involved. Zoning is about the use and its complementary existence with surrounding uses.”
Garrett Holt (6th District challenger):
“The first step for any situation like this is to approach the interested parties and listen. I would ask the developer about the details of the project, such as the location, the jobs and business it would bring, and their track record with other projects. I would also listen to the neighboring residents to hear their concerns and why they are opposing the project with the goal of seeking common ground.”
Gwen McKenzie (6th District incumbent):
“Meet with residents to fully understand the reason for opposition, communicate concerns with developer to find solutions. Bring the developer and community together to discuss common ground and solutions in order to bring jobs into our district, which are greatly needed.”
Please name one area in your district that needs to be redeveloped. It can be a commercial district or a single large undeveloped or underdeveloped property. What would you do to facilitate a revitalization effort?
“With the recent vacancies on Chapman Highway and the unsafe travel conditions on that road, it is an area that needs redevelopment. We need to improve traffic flow and safety on Chapman by reducing blind spots and unsafe lane usage. We can encourage business growth by making the city's attitude change to a more business-friendly culture.”
“Chapman Highway and Vestal. We have already been successful in recruiting multiple businesses to these areas, and the city’s primary role in doing so is building infrastructure, removing barriers, empowering entrepreneurs, and hard work. Moreover, I continue to advocate for small businesses; if redevelopment incentives are possible (i.e. PILOT, façade grants, etc.), those should be accessible to small businesses just like large businesses.”
“West Knoxville has benefited as being an attractive area for business investment. We need to continue to encourage growth along Kingston Pike that helps mitigate traffic problems in the future. Middlebrook Pike is starting to see more investment and it is important that traffic considerations and growth are managed appropriately.”
“Everyone is in agreement that the 9.5 acres of undeveloped property at the Northshore Town Center needs to be developed. Under the present process, we are unable to satisfy the needs of the developer or the needs of the neighborhood. I believe the previous planned residential zoning district, which was eliminated during the zoning code update, would provide the vehicle needed to address the most critical needs of all parties to move forward because it provided a process that gave neighborhoods and developers a way to negotiate with each other with enforceable conditions through a public process. To facilitate the development of this property, I will continue to advocate for something similar to the previous planned residential district being added to our zoning toolbox.”
“Fortunately, my district doesn’t need to be redeveloped. It has some small spots that could be tuned and adjusted to become ideal, but it’s not an area that has giant dead zones in it. Traffic flow, sidewalks and other small adjustments through the area are more pressing than redevelopment.”
“As a major artery through my district, Western Avenue needs much more intentional redevelopment. I have requested a corridor study from Knoxville-Knox County Planning to identify assets that can be leveraged to reduce sprawl and uplift the character and identity of the local community. Western Avenue needs to be a destination rather than a collection of drive-thrus.”
“Broadway is the main corridor of commercial investment in the 4th District. We need to encourage business investment along the corridor while doing a better job of managing the traffic flows for areas which have seen more business investment, such as in Fountain City. Walkability, pedestrian and bicycle safety are very important considerations along many parts of Broadway.”
“Northgate Plaza/Old Food City is approximately 26 acres of privately held parcels on Broadway. Most of the land and existing buildings are in the floodplain and underutilized. The zoning code now allows a higher/better use that could include commercial and residential development outside the floodplain and closer to the roadway. Planned development might also be considered. Redevelopment provides an opportunity for public-private partnerships to connect the Fountain City-lower Broadway greenway along First Creek and a pull-off bus station to aid traffic flow on Broadway. I would support reasonable zoning, right-of-way or engineering requests needed to see a transformative development here.”
“Magnolia Avenue is a major commercial corridor in the 6th District that could benefit from being redeveloped. The city could focus more on helping businesses open in the area by cutting red tape and streamlining the development process for that corridor. This area is also currently facing high crime rates, and improved policing would help lower crime. Lowering crime would help incentivize outside investment in the area.”
“The Magnolia Avenue corridor to the transition to Asheville Highway. This is already in progress and I am advocating for private development and investment to revitalize this area, which was once thriving with businesses and restaurants.”
In considering appeals of zoning matters, what criteria would you use to overturn a decision made by the Board of Zoning Appeals or the Planning Commission?
“Once again, I think setting up a meeting or meetings where all parties can discuss the matter is critical. Perhaps something was missed during the planning process that could be easily resolved. I would never want anyone to feel that they were not listened to and hope to give all involved a chance to explain their dissatisfaction with or support of any matter that is proposed.”
“Fairness and consistency. Each appeals process has requirements that must legally guide our considerations. Where possible, it is important to find a reasonable use of land for the property owner, but not at the detrimental expense of neighbors. Land use issues are one of the most important reasons to have diverse, reasonable and experienced members of City Council.”
“As previously mentioned in the first question, it is important to listen
to all sides. If a perspective or differing viewpoint was missed or not
fully considered during the planning process then this should be
revisited to ensure that voices are being heard and don’t feel
“As Council sits in a quasi-judicial role with regard to Board of Zoning Appeals decisions, Council’s determination must be based solely on the presentation at Council, just like a judge at a trial, without any research or discussion with the parties prior to the meeting. With regard to Planning Commission decisions, I review the presentation at Planning Commission, I discuss the matter with Planning staff, I meet with those for and against the agenda item, and I encourage the two sides to meet with each other and see if a path can be found that addresses all concerns. If no resolution can be found, I have a record of taking all the information I have gathered and weighing all concerns before making my decision on the matter.”
“My question is, on what instance? So far, I have only seen where pushing project (government) housing into established neighborhoods as a complaint. There have been a few affordable housing projects that weren’t objected to because they are made for people with jobs, who are trying to work their way into homeownership. From what I have heard, those are accepted fairly well.”
“My main criteria for overturning these decisions is whether I see an oversight or incorrect interpretation by the Board of Zoning Appeals and Knoxville-Knox County Planning of the existing zoning laws and standards.”
“In considering an overturn, I think it’s important to apply a commonsense approach. Again, applying good listening skills for all sides and asking if differing perspectives or viewpoints were completely communicated and fully considered during the planning process. Confirming if guidelines were being met, voices feeling like they were being heard and ensuring fair and reasonable application.”
“There is little latitude in overturning Board of Zoning Appeals decisions, which is when an applicant asks for variations from the zoning code. Legally, variances are only warranted if topography of the land deprives the owner of land use, and are not based on desires, wishes or finances. An appeal of Planning Commission decisions is based upon the One Year Plan, Sector Plan, and any changing conditions or factors that impact the surrounding area. No decision is a precedent for another, so each is a stand-alone decision based on the factors contributing to that specific request.”
“The main criteria I would look at would be the impact the proposed zoning may have on the neighboring properties and roadways, the financial impact it would have for the local economy as well as the city, and any relevant input received from the appealing party and any parties potentially affected.”
“I look at the reason for denial, review current zoning versus what is requested, the scope of deviation if approved, and whether there are reasonable accommodations that could be made by the applicant to stay within the current zoning ruling and community-neighborhood input, if applicable.”