Compatible Development

Thorn Grove residents fight for a plan that makes sense for East Knox County

The eastern corner of Knox County is sleepy but not asleep. In fact, they have been busy and need you to notice. Their right to self-determination may depend on it.

Developers have them in their sights, and the Development Corporation of Knox County is pulling political strings to get a business park and the attendant utilities built at the Midway Road interchange on I-40. It’s the one just east of Strawberry Plains with no amenities, not even a gas station. Developer Victor Jernigan would love to change that and already owns a chunk of land perfect for a Weigel’s.

East Knox County is bounded on the south by the French Broad River and includes both sides of the Holston River. Those two rivers merge a mile upriver from downtown to form the Tennessee River, and their millions of years of meanderings left behind gently rolling hills and karst land perfect for horses, cattle, and small farms, but prohibitive to large-scale development. A sewer line would change that, and residents are suspicious that is its ultimate goal. In fact, the document that set this tale in motion, a 2005 study of potential Knox County business-park sites, suggested just that. If you build a sewer line, sprawl will come.

When the Development Corporation chose the Midway Road site from the dozen considered, County Commission happily amended the sector plan, but last summer Chancellor Fansler ruled the change illegal. Only the Metropolitan Planning Commission, working in conjunction with the community, can amend a sector plan, he ruled, protecting their right to self rule. When the East Sector plan was originally drafted in 2000, residents took an active role and had Midway Road and the Thorn Grove community placed off limits to commercial development. Though that was supposed to be a 15-year plan, MPC exploited an ambiguity and this fall began the process of formally amending the East Sector plan. Once again the community has mobilized, turning out in numbers for planning meetings and making sure they are represented on committees. If developers get their way, it will be a sheer power play.

What is most compelling about this community’s struggle is that they are not merely opposed to development. They welcome it, but they want it to be smart and compatible with their own efforts. At least two conservation organizations are active in the area, the 8th District Preservation Association and the French Broad Preservation Association, which worked with the county to establish a conservation corridor along which several landowners have placed land into easements for permanent protection.

The group also helped establish Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge, a park that offers outstanding hiking, paddling, and wildlife viewing. The French Broad River is biodiverse, with numerous fish species, mussels, otters and more; living along the river are deer, turkeys, foxes, bald eagles, owls, songbirds and an impressive variety of trees, wildflowers, and grasses.

The people in this community are impressively diverse as well, a mix of generations and gender and old-timers with newcomers. At a meeting with county officials, you are just as likely to hear challenges to investment strategies and engineering assumptions as you are to hear someone in overalls drawl, “I don’t understand all this fancy talk, but you ain’t building no sewer plant on the French Broad River!” Both approaches get amens and applause from the crowd.

Throughout this process, residents have offered alternatives. They say an equestrian center would bring in millions of tourism dollars. Boutique farming and u-pick-it berry patches have been successful around Asheville, and they would like to develop more of that here and serve as a bridge between Knoxville consumers and community agriculture in Jefferson, Union, and other counties to the east.

Where they see home, the big-salary planners see interstate access and the inevitable urbanization of all of Knox County, but their business models have gone limp with the economy. In these tough times, we must come together and help one another, and uniting with the forward-thinking, simple-living folks of East Knox County would be a great way to start.

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Comments » 4

dngaubas writes:

Rikki Hall,
We live between the Strawberry Plains & Midway Road exits in a small subdivision. We appreciate your excellent summary of the resident's struggle with the county over at least the last nine years. The eastern county residents for many generations have supported development in Knox county with our property tax and small business dollars. What we have consistently asked for is that the democratic process be allowed to work for the people who live in those areas being developed. In recent years what we have received is what you describe; "special interests" (deep pocket developers, residents and high profile politicians who reside elsewhere in the county) influencing KDC in the old-fashioned method of railroading their agenda through the MPC and ultimately in county commission. Thank goodness for the democratic judicial process and Judge Fanslers' decision.
The special interest agenda is based on perhaps what THEY believe will return the highest revenues to the county coffers. They don't live in this sector area and ultimately by their actions don't care what the residents desire in the way of constructive, eco-friendly and long lasting improvements in this side of the county. In other words the residents in this area want to help the county increase their revenues in a way that preserves both the land and culture that has enriched East Knox county over many generations.
Again, thank you for your article, Dan and Nancy Gaubas...

ASummers writes:

If you dig back into the land transactions to the Development Corporation of the Midway properties, you will find that it was purchased from a woman with the last name Jernigan. That is very interesting isn't it?

cwhitehead writes:

Rikki Hall has connected all the dots. A "business park" at Midway Road provides a customer for KUB to justify building a waste water treatment plant on the French Broad River which will provide opportunity for more development and urban sprawl in East Knox County. I always hear people say, "Why isn't there progressive planning in Knox County?" Well folks, we have an appointed Metropolitan Planning Commission with a tax-payer paid professional staff, and a process for developing long-range sector plans with extensive community input. However, the plans are routinely changed when any proposal mentions "economic development and more jobs." Read between the lines. Now is the time for all Knox County citizens to step up and say, "NO MORE!"
We have a sector plan for East Knox County. Just because the Development Corp.was able to purchase this property is not a compelling reason to change it.

wwhitehead writes:

Rikki Hall, unlike News-Sentinel reporters on this issue, hit the nail on the head. We local residents, like most Knox County taxpayers, are not opposed to development. However, most agree that old school sprawl is not smart. Progressive economic development does not include spending millions of dollars on projects which will yield small return on investment and benefit a few insiders. The French Broad River is Knox County's "jewel necklace", a "blue-way" connecting the Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge with Ijams Nature Center and Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area. The waste-water treatment plant on the French Broad River proposed by KUB and the Development Corporation as part of the Midway Rd. business park will invite widespread development in East Knox County thereby destroying our rich agricultural land bank and historical resources. On the other hand, preservation of open space is good for economic recruitment and retention, increased property values, clean air and water, eco-tourism, amenities for county residents, income to local growers, grants, restoration funding and conservation programs and is an important factor in attracting high quality jobs to Knox County.

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