Lay of the Land

We need a county mayor who actually enforces environmental requirements

Attendance was good at a series of Ridge, Slope and Hillside task force meetings. Landowners concerned about property and citizens concerned about scenery and air and water quality filled meeting rooms in all corners of the county to hear panel recommendations. While the dialogue had rough spots (like a spiteful threat to plant ecologically costly Christmas trees) conversation started, and that was the task force's intent.

In contrast, attendance at a sustainable development task force meeting was sparse. The Small Assembly Room was an order of magnitude too large for an exchange between MPC presenters Mark Donaldson and Trey Benefield and stalwart environmental defenders like Jamie Rowe and Carlene Malone. Former councilwoman Malone was the spirited and sensible dissenter on many regrettable City Council votes in the Ashe era and a major player in several local environmental victories, including the repopulation of downtown with people and businesses. Malone said the sustainability task force's effort was like rescuing a beached whale while slaughter continues at sea.

Benefield, an architect serving as MPC chair and a big player in downtown redevelopment as well, presented proposals that would protect land and water, so he was puzzled by opposition from people he thought would applaud the task force. It was not so much opposition as ridicule over the meager scope of changes. Rowe mocked the "marshmallowy language." The two sides talked past each other during much of the exchange, with MPC saying "we are doing all we can" and citizens saying "you are not doing enough." What became clear is that the weak link in local environmental protection is neither MPC nor citizens, but the county mayor.

Mike Ragsdale walked anointed from the suites of a development firm into the mayor's office on a carpet of dollars, and though county engineers were deputized by TDEC to issue state citations during his tenure, issuance of fines and stop-work orders remains rare, collection of fines rarer. Money spent on lobster lunches and liquor pales in comparison to lost revenue from lax enforcement of clean water laws in Knox County.

County engineers claim to be overworked and say they are powerless unless a citizen complains about a violation, but landowners who have documented muddy runoff onto their land and been visited by county and state officials continue to watch their land and local waters get degraded each time it rains.

Malone cited chapter and verse on how laws get undermined, how council and commission overrule MPC, how regulators request instead of require that site plans be improved or silt fences repaired. The task force opted to encourage good practices rather than forbid bad ones, and everyone agreed laws forbidding bad practices are weakly enforced.

A county mayor with will to improve compliance could do more to improve water quality and protect ridges than any other official. Developer dollars play a big role in all local elections, but a friend in the mayor's office is all they need. Stronger enforcement of clean water laws would put careless and dishonest contractors and developers out of business and make room for good ones to earn a living. Perhaps the growing roster of "green" developers will eschew the insider candidate to replace Ragsdale and back a candidate who will stop ridges from sprouting water towers, getting deforested, and bleeding mud. Maybe Ragsdale will see the logic in Sarah Palin's resignation and do the same.

Whether you are from here or got here as soon as you could, East Tennesseeans know they are home when surrounded by hills. We should elect politicians willing to support these mighty ridges. We should buy Christmas trees that grow here—charismatic white pines, Virginia pines, red cedars and hemlocks instead of exotic spruces and firs, which grow poorly in the Southern heat and require intensive land clearing and chemicals. Christmas trees should not be a threat