Has the Age of Sprawl Bought the Farm?

Demographic trends point toward continued population growth in Knox County, but where are the newcomers going to work and live?

Knox County industrial parks are as vacant now as they have been throughout the push to build Midway Business Park. A Blount County research park that got a $5 million contribution from Knox County is built out but awaits its first tenant. Northshore Town Center, a dollop of New Urbanism in West Knox County, has been slow out of the gates, but an agreement with big-box retailer Target recently restarted the project after a foreclosure stalled them.

While such central planning has floundered, small businesses have made steady progress in and around downtown. The City of Knoxville enabled this growth not by courting big corporations, but by creating investment districts and community consensus, then letting free enterprise do the rest.

County Mayor Tim Burchett hoped to harness market power to realize cost savings on Carter Elementary School, but when the bids came in, the private sector proved no more efficient than PBA and the school board. Why can't the county harness market forces as effectively as the city?

With gasoline prices at levels formerly seen only during supply disruptions, the age of easy suburban expansion that has long nurtured county tax coffers appears to be tailing off, but whether county government is willing to face new economic realities is unclear.

In 2006, at the height of the real-estate bubble, new residential construction was a $448 million industry in Knox County. It plummeted to $147 million in 2009, rebounding to $202 million last year, according to MPC figures. Commercial construction has been hit even harder, plunging from a high of $267 million in 2007 to just $42 million last year. During this same time frame, renovation activity has held steady. This suggests that infill and revitalization of neglected districts and properties will be the trajectory of future development.

Realtors and developers, the dominant force in county politics, have reacted to the end of their gravy train like spoiled children. Rather than being chastened by their complicity in Wall Street's folly, realtors have sought scapegoats, and County Commissioner Tony Norman and MPC have been favorites. The hillside protection plan offers new development tools, but was nonetheless greeted with petulant opposition.

"Don't tell us how to build on steep slopes," they cried, "enforce the laws we've been ignoring!"

In 2008, a task force was assembled to study whether Knox County could use "transfer of development rights," which allows property owners in protected areas to sell development rights to those in growth areas. The panel concluded that TDR is infeasible here because County Commission lacks "the political resolve...to strictly adhere to adopted plans without enabling rezonings that are contrary to a plan." In other words, the biggest enforcement problem in Knox County is a Commission that constantly bends the rules for developers.

The hillside plan bends rules, allowing smaller setbacks, reduced parking, and more narrow roads to preserve forested slopes, but it does this formally. Developers protested because they prefer the rules to be bent at their whim, not for good reasons like flood prevention, clean air, and attractive scenery.

The county's servility to developers could be charitably viewed as faith in the marketplace, but it's the sort of faith that brought the mortgage crisis.

Knox County teacher pay ranks 38th in a state that ranks 33rd nationally, and it hasn't given employees even a cost-of-living raise in three years. Since even a meager tax increase seems beyond the political resolve of county leadership, perhaps they should consider a more structured and less whimsical approach to growth. Adopting a conservation subdivision ordinance, as recommended in the recently adopted East County sector plan, would be a good start.

The city is currently working on redevelopment plans for Central Street and Magnolia. County leaders should take a keen interest in these efforts since they will generate additional county revenues. Maybe they will learn that smart development pays off a lot better than giving away the farm to every guy who rolls up on a bulldozer.