Hillside Protection Plan's Time Has Come

After a protracted process that's involved a lot of wheel-spinning, the time has come for County Commission and City Council to jointly approve a Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan worthy of the name.

Majorities on both bodies have long since agreed that more safeguards are needed against soil erosion and drainage from development on steep slopes that can result in sedimentation and flooding down below. But finding common ground on what they ought to be has proved elusive.

The two bodies appeared to be gaining traction toward doing so during a series of joint meetings over the summer facilitated by a professional mediator, Steve Joiner of Lipscomb University. Limitations on development densities and the amount of clearing on steep slopes originally recommended by a task force under the auspices of the Metropolitan Planning Commission and then approved by MPC got tweaked at the initiative of the task force's co-chair, County Commissioner Tony Norman. MPC's executive director, Mark Donaldson, offered language intended to show more flexibility in the application of these standards to a proposed development as a whole. And Joiner helped clarify that MPC would not be the final arbiter of what's permissible since its determinations could be overturned on appeal to the city's or county's legislative bodies.

Then, at a recent public forum, the Knoxville Chamber came forward with a plan whose very name connotes an intent to abort this collaborative effort. Plan B, as the Chamber dubbed it, was acknowledged to have drawn its name from an after-the-fact contraceptive that borders on being an abortion pill.

Instead of providing more protection, Plan B would weaken density standards that have been in place throughout the county for the past 20 years. Indeed, by permitting two dwelling units per acre on slopes in excess of 25 percent, it would quadruple the density limit of one unit per two acres established by the Knoxville-Knox County General Plan since 1992. By contrast, the MPC-approved plan would simply maintain the General Plan's standards on slopes up to 40 percent while setting a more restrictive one unit per five acre limit on even steeper slopes.

Where the MPC plan broke new ground, so to speak, was in setting limits on how much of a hillside could be cleared by a developer. For slopes between 15 percent and 25 percent, clearing would be limited to 50 percent of the land, declining to 20 percent on slopes between 25 percent and 40 percent, and then 10 percent of the land above that.

Plan B would get rid of any restrictions on clearing on slopes less than 30 percent and set more lenient limits on higher slopes. "Only above 30 percent do you have to be concerned about erosion and stormwater," the Chamber's spokesman, lawyer Tom McAdams, asserted at the forum, while claiming that any limits on lesser slopes would unnecessarily impede development. To which Tony Norman responds that "Limitations on clearing is where all the resistance is. Developers love to do whatever they want, wherever they want, and decimate the land."

The Chamber also resists the leeway MPC would gain over developments in hillside protected areas by making their site plans subject to its approval. This leeway, McAdams contended, "will create substantial uncertainty for property owners" when what's needed are "clear, consistent standards" so that property owners will know what they can and cannot do.

Yet McAdams acknowledged in his presentation at the forum that, "Once you get above 30 percent, a lot depends on how it's located on a particular site, and you have to look at everything on an individual basis." The flexibility to do so is precisely what MPC is seeking in the context of evaluating densities and clearing over an entire proposed development that may have many different shapes and slopes.

Donaldson acknowledges that "perceived MPC powers are the elephant in the room" but goes on to say that "after much discussion [in the joint committee] about the ability of applicants to appeal to the legislative bodies, I believe that concern has been satisfactorily addressed."

The city councilman who's been most outspoken on the panel, Nick Della Volpe, reflected this at the forum when he observed, "As long as we adopt a plan that gives the flexibility to make fine-tuned decisions, I think we're in good shape and I would support going forward."

Where high ridgetops are concerned, the Chamber plan would be more restrictive than MPC's in one respect: namely, preservation of scenic views. At elevations above 1,200 feet north of the Tennessee River and 1,100 feet south of the river, Plan B would prohibit ridgetop development if it would be visible from major roadways.

Just how abortive the Chamber's Plan B proves to be may depend on how well Donaldson responds to a request for an evaluation of it by County Commission Chairman Mike Hammond that's due on Oct. 17.

"There are a lot of misconceptions, misstatements, and exaggerations in it, so I welcome MPC's response," Norman said.

And even though his level of frustration may have beget some exaggeration on his own part, Norman clearly spoke for many when he added, "For us to go into more process, I mean it's painful. It's time for us to step up and vote. I can't see how we can lengthen this out any more."