commentary (2006-35)

An industrial park may thwart Farragut East

A Disappointment, Either Way

by Matt Edens

To the west, Knoxville is a mash-up of McMansions and mini-malls clear to the Loudon County line. What Halls has is mostly a knock-off of what West Knoxville got five or 10 years year before. And commercialism is even creeping into once sleepy Seymour like so much kudzu (although whether it’s creeping up Chapman Highway or down it, is open to debate). But East Knox County is surprisingly sprawl-free. 

Head towards Asheville from downtown, and it is a mere three exits to the middle of nowhere, broken only by the odd clump of fry-pits, fern bars and franchise motels astride the interstate at Strawberry Plains Pike. And even that, thanks to Victor’s appetite for finger annexation, is technically the city of Knoxville’s far-flung eastern point of entry (sort of like Piraeus, if the Long Walls were just lines on a map).

I’m not entirely sure why the east end has escaped the sprawl that carpets almost every crevice of Knox County’s west side. Maybe it’s because much of the area’s soil is unfriendly to septic systems. Or it could be the fact that Knoxvillians are allegedly averse to anything involving the dreaded word east (they apparently don’t like “Center” any better…). For whatever reason, while Knox County may be home to almost a half-million people, old crossroads communities such as Kodak and Thorn Grove remain overwhelmingly rural.

Whether they are country folk whose roots often reach back to the first settlers, back-to-nature types trying their hand at organic farming, or would-be squires whose large homes lord over five- or 10-acre estate lots, an appreciation of East Knox County’s rural charm manages to cut across the political differences inherent in the diverse backgrounds and lifestyles of its inhabitants. Their appreciation shows in the East County Sector plan adopted in 2000 by the Metropolitan Planning Commission.

Developed by MPC planners after a considerable amount of input from the community, the plan’s governing concepts aim to preserve the area’s rural character largely by encouraging development to concentrate in a series of town centers and smaller “Crossroads Commercial Centers” somewhat akin to what’s belatedly being built out west off Northshore. There’s also the suggestion that the Midway interchange of I-40 be developed as an “attractive gateway to Knox County” (MPC’s planners being too inherently nice to come right out and say anything directly about the unattractive gateway that’s already sprung up at the Straw Plains exit). 

All in all, the East County Sector Plan’s a remarkably progressive document, mixing the not entirely unrelated concepts of rural preservation and new urbanism.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Knox County’s leadership has largely ignored it. By the time you read this, it’s quite likely that County Commission will have approved rezoning for a new 360-acre industrial park just off I-40’s Midway Road interchange. Whether the vote sticks may be up to the courts, considering the mess county government is currently in. But even if the decision is postponed or comes back to a reconstituted Commission, it’s unclear if the rezoning’s opponents can muster enough votes to defeat it. Votes on Commission, that is. 

When the MPC (the appointed commissioners, not the professional planners) approved the rezoning and amended the sector plan in July, more than 200 residents showed up to protest the proposed industrial park.  Proponents of the park, mostly chamber and business-booster types, say the new industrial acreage is needed, mostly because the Development Corp’s current industrial parks are cramped. They promise to do better this time (overlooking, apparently, how the sector plan singles out Midway Road, mentioning its “sinkholes, woodlands and steep terrain”).

Nor is the possibility of industry intruding on their pristine agricultural area the only thing worrying residents. The industrial park will require a sewer line, potentially opening the area up to more intensive development and leading some residents to fear their once rural community could quickly become a mirror image of the McMansion-packed west side. The sector plan, so easily ignored, seems to provide little defense. But on the plus side, if Midway Road did get a makeover as Farragut East, at least the county wouldn’t dare plop down another industrial park there.