Housing Moves South
As County Commission approves a contentious rezoning, a developer’s representative says South Knox County ‘is on the map now.’
by jesse fox mayshark • May 24, 2022
The hatched area shows the flatter 64 acres where most of the planned housing will be concentrated. (Image courtesy Knoxville-Knox County Planning)
Knox County Commission voted 8-3 Monday night to approve a new housing development in South Knox County, despite fierce opposition from surrounding residents.
Local residents haven't stopped a development, but they forced some changes.
But the conditions imposed by Commission limit the subdivision in the Dry Hollow area to 180 homes on the flattest, most developable part of the property — down from 255 that the Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commission had approved.
“It’s definitely not a complete loss,” Brad Russell, one of the leaders of community opposition, said after the vote. “We’ve always been for growth. We’re just not for massive growth that our infrastructure can’t handle yet.”
The development by Thunder Mountain Properties LLC of 159 acres just off Chapman Highway will be another significant step in the ongoing build-out of South Knox County. It was the largest of four different housing developments south of the river that Commission approved during its zoning meeting Monday.
“South Knoxville is on the map now,” attorney Taylor Forrester, representing Thunder Mountain Properties, told commissioners. “There’s a huge desire and demand in South Knoxville for housing.”
Meeting a surging demand for housing has become a major focus for County Commission and County Mayor Glenn Jacobs over the past year, as Knox County’s tight housing market has driven up costs for both homeowners and renters.
Last night’s vote came after three months of delay, as commissioners urged the developers to work with the local community to try to find compromises. Those efforts had minimal effect, judging by the dozens of community members who packed the downstairs of the Main Assembly Room in the City County Building carrying red signs saying “No Rezone.”
Attorney Daniel Sanders, representing the Dry Hollow community members, told commissioners Monday that Thunder Mountain had been unwilling to consider a lower number of houses on the property. The community had proposed that the site could handle 145 dwellings.
“We were told by the developer there was no room to compromise on the number of units,” Sanders said.
The central area of interest for both the developer and community is about 64 acres of relatively flat land on the property, bordered by Sevierville Pike and Bays Mountain road. The other 95 acres on the site are on a ridge and difficult to develop. Crucially, they lack sewer and water connections, which are available on the flatter property via Knox Chapman Utility District.
Forrester said it was the extension of those utilities that made the former farmland finally attractive to development. He said there have also been local highway safety improvements, including to the intersection of Sevierville Pike and Chapman Highway.
Planning Commission had recommended allowing 2.5 houses per acre on the flatter land, and 1 per acre on the hillside — a total of 255 units. But it also recommended allowing all of those units to actually be clustered on the flat 64 acres.
Sanders warned County Commission Monday that no matter what restrictions it put on the density, Thunder Mountain could still claim a right to cluster all of its housing.
“If you approve this at 255 units, you have to assume that all those 255 units are eventually going to be clustered down in that field, next to the industrial park,” Sanders said, referring to an adjacent complex of warehouses and factories.
But Forrester told commissioners that the developer would be satisfied with 180 houses on the flat area, with the potential of building 77 more on the more difficult terrain.
That was what Commission ultimately approved, with one requirement — that the 180 units be completely laid out as lots before any work could begin on the rest of the property. Commissioner John Schoonmaker said that would be a protection against any attempt to bring more density to the lower part of the land.
“They can do up to 180 home sites (on the flat area),” Schoonmaker said, “and not a single one over that.”
Commissioner Terry Hill sought to trim the maximum a little more with a proposal to hold it at 160 units in the flat area, but that failed by a 5-6 vote.
Hill told the Dry Hollow residents that she sympathized with them, noting that she hears similar concerns from communities in the fast-growing Karns and Hardin Valley areas that she represents.
“It’s the result of living in a growing and prosperous county where housing has got to be provided,” she said. “Make no mistake, I’m not crazy about the way it’s all happening either.”
‘Everyone Needs to Get More Involved’
The local residents were joined in opposition Monday night by local environmental advocates. Wolf Naegeli of the Foundation for Global Sustainability touted the Dry Hollow area’s historical significance, including its time as a stagecoach way station between Knoxville and Sevierville.
Gerald Thornton, representing the local chapter of the Sierra Club, urged commissioners to focus on redevelopment of urban brownfields with existing infrastructure rather than continuing to allow the paving over of agricultural properties. “Farmland and woodlands in Knox County are quickly disappearing under the guise of development,” he said, “causing considerable environmental destruction and further contributing to global warming and the degradation of surface waters.”
None of those arguments resonated as much with commissioners, however, as Forrester’s emphasis on the county’s housing shortage.
“The fact is, it’s real, it’s here,” he said. “And we do have to do something about it, especially from an affordability standpoint. The only way to get affordable housing is to create more housing.”
Commissioner Carson Dailey, who represents the South Knox 9th District, said that at 180 units the density on the flat 64 acres would be under the 3 units per acre allowed by the county’s sector and growth plans.
“A hundred and eighty to me is a fair number,” he said.
Dailey voted with an eight-member majority to approve the project, with just three commissioners in opposition: Dasha Lundy, Courtney Durrett and Justin Biggs.
After the meeting, which didn’t end until about 10:30 p.m., Russell said that the Dry Hollow community’s past year of organizing and lobbying against the project had not been in vain. Without it, he said, the higher density sought by the developer would most likely have been approved.
“When I started a Facebook page back almost a year ago, and it was me and my neighbor, we [thought] that we would have a hard time finding people to actually join our cause,” Russell said. “We ended up with a petition with almost 750 people on it, just from word of mouth and on Facebook.”
As development pressures continue, he said residents and community groups across the county should be paying attention and getting involved early in the planning and zoning process.
“Everyone needs to get more involved in their local government,” he said. “You have to go to the Knox County website, look at the agendas that they post every month. People always say there’s nothing you can do about it. There is something you can do about it.”