Compatible Development

Thorn Grove residents fight for a plan that makes sense for East Knox County

The eastern corner of Knox County is sleepy but not asleep. In fact, they have been busy and need you to notice. Their right to self-determination may depend on it.

Developers have them in their sights, and the Development Corporation of Knox County is pulling political strings to get a business park and the attendant utilities built at the Midway Road interchange on I-40. It's the one just east of Strawberry Plains with no amenities, not even a gas station. Developer Victor Jernigan would love to change that and already owns a chunk of land perfect for a Weigel's.

East Knox County is bounded on the south by the French Broad River and includes both sides of the Holston River. Those two rivers merge a mile upriver from downtown to form the Tennessee River, and their millions of years of meanderings left behind gently rolling hills and karst land perfect for horses, cattle, and small farms, but prohibitive to large-scale development. A sewer line would change that, and residents are suspicious that is its ultimate goal. In fact, the document that set this tale in motion, a 2005 study of potential Knox County business-park sites, suggested just that. If you build a sewer line, sprawl will come.

When the Development Corporation chose the Midway Road site from the dozen considered, County Commission happily amended the sector plan, but last summer Chancellor Fansler ruled the change illegal. Only the Metropolitan Planning Commission, working in conjunction with the community, can amend a sector plan, he ruled, protecting their right to self rule. When the East Sector plan was originally drafted in 2000, residents took an active role and had Midway Road and the Thorn Grove community placed off limits to commercial development. Though that was supposed to be a 15-year plan, MPC exploited an ambiguity and this fall began the process of formally amending the East Sector plan. Once again the community has mobilized, turning out in numbers for planning meetings and making sure they are represented on committees. If developers get their way, it will be a sheer power play.

What is most compelling about this community's struggle is that they are not merely opposed to development. They welcome it, but they want it to be smart and compatible with their own efforts. At least two conservation organizations are active in the area, the 8th District Preservation Association and the French Broad Preservation Association, which worked with the county to establish a conservation corridor along which several landowners have placed land into easements for permanent protection.

The group also helped establish Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge, a park that offers outstanding hiking, paddling, and wildlife viewing. The French Broad River is biodiverse, with numerous fish species, mussels, otters and more; living along the river are deer, turkeys, foxes, bald eagles, owls, songbirds and an impressive variety of trees, wildflowers, and grasses.

The people in this community are impressively diverse as well, a mix of generations and gender and old-timers with newcomers. At a meeting with county officials, you are just as likely to hear challenges to investment strategies and engineering assumptions as you are to hear someone in overalls drawl, "I don't understand all this fancy talk, but you ain't building no sewer plant on the French Broad River!" Both approaches get amens and applause from the crowd.

Throughout this process, residents have offered alternatives. They say an equestrian center would bring in millions of tourism dollars. Boutique farming and u-pick-it berry patches have been successful around Asheville, and they would like to develop more of that here and serve as a bridge between Knoxville consumers and community agriculture in Jefferson, Union, and other counties to the east.

Where they see home, the big-salary planners see interstate access and the inevitable urbanization of all of Knox County, but their business models have gone limp with the economy. In these tough times, we must come together and help one another, and uniting with the forward-thinking, simple-living folks of East Knox County would be a great way to start.