New East County Sector Plan Offers Opportunity for Smart Development

Last month the Metropolitan Planning Commission approved a new East County sector plan, and the document will come before Knox County Commission this month. Commission had previously adopted amendments to the old sector plan in 2006 that would have allowed a business park to be built near the Interstate 40/Midway Road interchange, but Chancellor Fansler rejected them, ruling that MPC had not identified significant changes in the sector to justify amending the plan.

The Development Corporation still wants to build a business park, having invested $12 million in land along Thorngrove Pike. MPC realized the only way to make this happen would be to completely rewrite the sector plan, as is required every decade or so. The community must be included in this process, and there were eight public meetings over the past year and a half. "No business park" is listed in every meeting summary, but the new plan allows for one to be built. Despite this, the community has reason to celebrate.

Other than TDC's land purchase, the only significant change in East Knox County since the 2001 sector plan was adopted was the establishment of Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. The new plan follows that trend in several ways. It identifies a French Broad Conservation Corridor, proposes scenic highway designation for several roads, and outlines a system of parks and greenways. For all that to materialize, County Commission will need to follow through on several fronts.

MPC suggests new zoning designations for rural areas and outlines standards for "conservation subdivisions," residential developments designed to minimize environmental impacts through thoughtful site-planning and low-impact design. They also suggest transportation planning that emphasizes "complete streets" that are friendly to bikes and pedestrians. Two independent MPC efforts already underway ought to encourage creation of the needed planning tools: transfer-of-development-rights guidelines and slope and ridge protections.

These sorts of changes to the county code cost nothing and can even serve to generate funds by enhancing property value and reducing infrastructure costs, but the creation of parks and greenways obviously costs money. With the entire commission up for election this year, candidates should be quizzed on their commitment to such spending and on how well they understand the need for development.

Something that has changed significantly over the past few years is TDC's conception of the Midway Business Park. This change is partly in response to community opposition, but also a reflection of broader economic trends. Green design is hot, and TDC realizes that it can attract high-paying jobs by offering a state-of-the-art facility. While the Midway site was originally chosen as a vehicle for bringing sewer and road improvements to East Knox County, the latest plan features on-site wastewater handling, vegetation buffers, a small footprint, and a natural area with public access. MPC says, "regional warehouse/distribution uses should be prohibited not only because of the fewer jobs that would be generated, but because of impacts to the landscape and road system beyond the interchange area."

Most typical business-park tenants would not be allowed under the constraints in the new sector plan. Rather than the industrial uses once envisioned, likely uses for the park seem to be medical offices, research facilities, and light manufacturing. An economic study funded by the French Broad Preservation Association suggested that educational and cultural attractions such as a museum, theater, or visitor's center could bring jobs and income to the area.

With the evaporation of credit on national and international scales, standard business practices are no longer appealing. Moving forward in these uncertain times takes imagination, and TDC has shown that it can be flexible and open to new approaches. Their mission is to bring jobs and prosperity to the Knoxville area. The East Knox County community has shown vision and determination. Though the two sides started out in opposition, this new sector plan is an opportunity for something smart and unique to come from the struggle, like the Tennessee River comes from the Holston and French Broad.