Time for Hillside Compromise

Developers need to give a little to get what they want

Monday came in like a lion, a powerful storm with flooding as bad as we've seen in a decade. It went out like a lamb, County Commission deferring action on the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan for 60 days. It was wise of Commission to defer their vote, because a last-minute panic attack by county realtors and developers had soured the atmosphere with confusion.

All over town, Monday's rain turned active development sites to a mud soup that spilled into the nearest creek. I don't know why a property owner would want to lose their topsoil and erode their land to clay. It devalues the land and seems presumptuous to inflict on future owners. Nonetheless, Monday brought swollen creeks bleeding orange with soil.

Though the hillside plan was two years in the making and published nearly a year ago, County Mayor Tim Burchett chose Friday to announce his opposition, which came sandwiched between a statement and weekend full-page ads from the Knox Chamber and an e-mail blast and newspaper ad from county realtors.

The first hint of subterfuge came when Chamber CEO Mike Edwards spoke at a commission workshop the prior week, offering a weak dose of professional analysis with heavy echoes of the ideology of Internet trolls. Edwards said he was speaking on behalf of his board of directors, an elite roster of development and business moguls that happens to overlap significantly with the roster of $500, $1,000, and maxed-out $2,000 donors to Burchett's shoo-in mayoral run.

I sat down to tally his campaign donations from local real estate and construction bigwigs thinking one piece of paper would do, but I filled every line on both sides and had to use the margins for the last few names. Occupation and employer are listed on public campaign reports, though the information is sometimes missing. My total was over $42,000, and I missed a few wives and unfamiliar names.

At the workshop, Edwards opined on behalf of a mythical Mamaw who owns the family farm but has no idea a task force has been talking about her hills and ridges. Edwards and the plan's opponents have demanded MPC send notices to the owners of some 63,000 county parcels impacted by the plan—an unprecedented request the law says should come later, when actual regulations are drafted.

Edwards is also head of The Development Corporation, and when they spent $10 million acquiring acreage for the Midway Business Park, a sizable portion went not to property owners, but to real estate speculators who knew about the plans and bought options. The families who owned those parcels would have appreciated a certified letter letting them know of the plan.

Sadly, it is again land owners being set up as suckers. They have been fed fears that property values will decrease, but the laws of supply and demand say ridge protection constrains supply and ups demand, resulting in higher property values. Tree protection preserves property value. So does close proximity to parks and protected ridges.

People who buy a lot of real estate do not want the price of land to go up. They want to buy out Mamaw cheap. If the family farm were going to drop in price, developers would be celebrating, not protesting.

Real estate and construction guys want compromise, despite all they've gotten, but they have not said what they are willing to give up to get what they want. I suggest they do something about a problem everyone recognizes, lax enforcement, by perhaps consenting to permits and impact fees adequate to fund another five county engineering inspectors. Job creation!

In addition, real estate elites should pledge to support a conservation subdivision ordinance. The just-adopted East County Sector Plan includes conservation subdivisions, and Mark Donaldson reported Monday that MPC has an ordinance ready. Developers do not believe they will actually get the bonuses and allowances promised in the hillside plan, but a conservation subdivision ordinance would codify those into law.

If they are willing to go along with my suggestions or offer other significant concessions, their plea for more compromise could be entertained.