Towering Infernal

South Knoxville residents cry out for an alternative to KUB’s new “ugly” water tower near Cherokee Trail

The new 180-foot South Knox water tower stares haughtily down at the relatively diminutive Woodlands apartments.

Photo by Sheena Patrick

The new 180-foot South Knox water tower stares haughtily down at the relatively diminutive Woodlands apartments.

Craning out of the tree line of a South Knox County ridge like some lost alien probe, the new 180-foot tall water tower under construction off Cherokee Trail came as an especially large and unwelcome surprise to South Knoxville residents. And not the least to District 1 City Councilman Joe Hultquist.

“Why has this issue just now come up on us?” Hultquist queries, rhetorically. “That’s the $2.2 million question. I’d heard that there would have to be some work up there for increased water supply, maybe something like a pump station. Or that’s what I thought. There never was any mention of a water tower.”

Reaction to the looming structure with its gangling legs and fattened crown has been less than positive. Hultquist rues the placement of “an industrial-style tower on the top of a beautiful ridge. Who knew that was even possible?” At a Jan. 3 public meeting to discuss the project, South Knox resident Diane Humphreys-Barlow posed the question: “Did the word ‘ugly’ ever come into play when this thing was proposed?”

Humphreys-Barlow later added that, “My vocabulary doesn’t extend to just how upsetting this is. I can’t believe someone thought it was a good idea to stick something that ugly in one of the most visible places in the city.”

The tower, which is topped by a massive 500,000-gallon tank, began rising from the mists at the end of 2007. If it’s completed—and that would appear increasingly certain—it will bring water service to a handful of current and planned residential developments on the busy ridge it sits atop—water service that, according to KUB officials who mandated its construction, can’t be feasibly achieved by other means.

So why has the $2.2 million project come as such a shock to the people who must abide the sullied South Knox ridge line? The answer is complicated, and it’s difficult to identify any one of the responsible parties—local politicians, developers, KUB officials, the Metropolitan Planning Commission—as the chief culprit.

For years, the only development on the ridge in question was the decades-old Cherokee Bluff condominiums and a handful of single-family homes. But roughly two years ago, a pair of sizable residential developments were proposed for the ridge over the short haul—the Woodlands student condominiums developed by the Georgia-based Dovetail Properties, and the Quarry Trail apartment complex, by Ohio’s Edwards Communities—with a third, the Log Haven residential project, slated for development over the long term.

In total, the three projects could yield as many as 926 new living units on the ridge. As it stands, the Woodlands and Quarry Trail developments have around 550 units either completed or under construction.

But development issues are complicated by the fact that some of the parcels in question fall within city limits, while others are in the county—an important distinction, given that county building requirements are generally regarded as being more permissive than those in the city. When the city tried to maintain some consistency in development standards by annexing the county-side parcels—in separate annexations, in 2004 and 2006—the developers sued, and obtained injunctions effectively blocking the annexations until the issues are decided in court.

In the meantime, despite the contested annexations, the city went ahead and approved the developers for higher-density projects on land that had been zoned only for single-family residential. “I would like to have made the rezoning contingent on the county portion coming into the city,” Hultquist says. “Let the whole thing be developed under one set of rules. But there wasn’t support on Council.”

In 2007, as 143 units in the Woodlands complex saw completion, KUB officials began wrestling with the question of how to best provide water service for both the new and planned living units. “If you think in terms of more than 900 new units coming online [in total], our water system is not capable of moving that kind of water up the hilltop and providing both residential and fire service to that kind of density,” says KUB Chief Operating Officer Bill Elmore, noting issues related to both volume and requisite pressure.

“We were looking at how to best provide flows to that ridgetop, and there are basically two ways,” Elmore continues. “You can put the water at a sufficiently high elevation to create the water pressure you need. In this case, there are some proposed five- and six-story units in the last phase of Woodlands, so that means we need plenty of height.

“The other option is to use water pumps that would run 24-7. That can be done, and we have some pumps like that in our system. But at that density, you need reliability and safety. You need redundant facilities to ensure back-ups. There’s more potential for risk, for failure. So we determined that the tank method is much safer and more reliable.”

KUB told Dovetail the tower would be necessary in mid-2007, with the $2.2 million cost to be split among the utility, Dovetail, and Quarry Trail developers Edwards Communities. Though the tower project was being overseen by Dovetail, county officials apparently treated it as if it was a KUB endeavor, and didn’t require a building permit.

“There’s some question if that was even legal,” Hulquist contends. “Clearly, if it had been in the city, we would have gone through the entire permitting and inspection process, and everyone would have been aware.”

What’s more, due to rules surrounding the parcel’s RP-1 zoning designation, the Metropolitan Planning Commission was the only authority required to review the tower building plans. In other words, the project never had to undergo high-profile scrutiny by City Council or County Commission.

Complicating it all was an apparent lack of communication, due in part to the fact that while the tower is technically located in the county, its ungainly presence is just as troubling to residents inside the city.

“The MPC is usually pretty good about flagging things of interest for me when they give me their agenda,” Hultquist says. “But this time they didn’t because the tower is in the county. I try to read through every MPC agenda for pertinent stuff, but it’s a long agenda, and I’m mainly looking for Council District 1. This said County Commission District 9. If it had been in the city, it could have been brought to the Council on appeal.”

“As far as communication is concerned, we treated it as we would any other subdivision development, and notification for those issues are usually handled by MPC,” Elmore says. “That usually works well. What threw us a curve here is that the definition of community is changed. There are so many people who take ownership of that view who weren’t in on the loop. In retrospect, it would have been nice if we could have alerted the wider community. In future circumstances like this, we’ll implement a communication plan of our own.”

“One thing that came out of our public meeting was that there’s something very broken about how these decisions are made,” Hultquist says. “And I think everyone mostly agreed with that.”

Thus the tower, as it stands, leaves open questions as to who is most culpable for its sudden, surprising, and decidedly unwelcome arrival. Were Knox County Commissioners asleep at the switch, or else indifferent, when it appeared on the MPC agenda? Were MPC officials remiss in not notifying somebody that a project of this magnitude was on the horizon? Did City Council err in rezoning the ridge for high-density development? Did the developers forestall the process by contesting the annexation? Or did KUB play fast and loose with tower plans—banking that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission?

Humphreys-Barlow suggests KUB was too hasty in building such a lofty structure, the height of which owes to the fact that the yet-to-be-approved final phase of the Woodlands development calls for apartment buildings as high as six stories, thus requiring a higher tower to ensure adequate water pressure. “Surely, when it comes time, no one is actually going to approve a six-story apartment on that ridge,” she says.

So what are the prospects for improving the tower’s aesthetics, or perhaps even removing it outright in favor of another water supply option? Elmore has said the tower will be painted sky blue to lessen its visibility. But Hultquist says that may not be enough.

“To remove the tank and get an alternative would be at least as expensive as building it in the first place, and maybe more,” Hultquist says. “But if it remains, it’s not clear what negative effect it could have on South Knox waterfront development. We might still come out ahead paying $3 million to replace it, it’s such an eyesore.

“But it’s impossible to quantify what that impact might be,” he continues. “And without firm numbers, it’s going to be difficult to justify taking it down. But I think we have to keep the option of removing it on the table. We have to consider every possible option for improving that ridge—moving the tower, taking it down, refitting it, painting it, enclosing it. We’ve got to find a way to make lemonade out of a lemon.”

Representatives from Dovetail Properties did not return calls for comment.

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