County Commissioner Greg “Lumpy” Lambert’s outburst at a recent meeting was disturbing in several ways. At a task force presentation on proposed ridge and slope zoning, Lambert predicted a shooting in the City County Building. He also said “we’ll deserve it.”
His timing was poor, with the one-year anniversary of Knoxville’s church murders coming next week, and his delivery was no better. Lambert was late, missing the presentation, then loud and domineering, interrupting others and repeatedly speaking out of turn. He and another landowner, Lonnie Harris, staged a coup. At a later meeting that week, Lambert tried to appoint himself moderator.
As owners of ridgetop property, Lambert and Harris perceive a loss of value to their holdings if slope protections are adopted. They feel zoning is an affront to property rights, so they revolted. If their cause was just, Lumpy and the landowners could be heroes in the classic American mold, citizens demanding better government. Their cause is not just. Slope protection restricts some opportunities but creates others. Done right, it can increase the value of land, particularly for residential uses.
Density—apartments, many houses on little lots—increases the number of money-making opportunities, but it does not necessarily increase yield. Nothing drives up the value of a resource like scarcity, and slope protections create a category of special land. Lambert simply needs to start thinking about uses that exploit his land’s protected status.
Slope zonings typically protect trees and vegetation, so Lambert could allow and encourage forest regeneration on his land and find buyers who covet living among trees. (Currently zoned for agricultural use, Lambert’s property would need to be rezoned anyway if he plans to build anything larger than duplexes.) Instead of 50 people paying $500 a month in rent in a big complex with upkeep, he could find five willing to pay $200,000 for land and homes in a neighborhood they know will grow more beautiful rather than more crowded because the land is protected. If he wants to pursue commercial uses, a dining establishment heavy on porches and big windows, nestled in forest but accessible from Clinton Highway, could become the go-to place for power dining north of town.
Lumpy and the landowners feel justified in their protestations, but slope protection creates value. Slope protection ordinances can and should contain easements, discounts on property taxes for holders of protected land. Undisturbed soil keeps water clean, and forests filter the air, so protected slopes yield common good, just as eroding and abused slopes muddy everyone’s creek. The common good justifies a reduced tax rate. Instead of disrupting meetings and shouting down county residents and his own constituents, Lambert could be lobbying to cut his own taxes and those of thousands of county landowners. That would be heroic.
To understand slope protections that well, Lambert would have to arrive to meetings on time and pay attention. Instead, he keeps himself defiantly uninformed, an insult to those he represents, and he is missing a chance to cut taxes and win gains for landowners and developers. Task force recommendations already include incentives and rewards for developers who adhere to green standards in siting and design.
Disrupting public meetings is rude, all the more so for a public officeholder. Having condoned gun violence in the face of pending legislation, Lambert has gone beyond mere rudeness. By suggesting that he and his colleagues face a threat of violence if they pass slope protections, Lambert has compromised the vote. He needs to apologize to anyone who felt threatened by him, even if that was not his intent, or recuse himself from deliberations on any slope ordinance that comes before County Commission.
If 5,000 voters in his district sign a recall petition, a vote would be held to remove Lambert from office. It would not be expensive since only 6th District voters are eligible. With convenience voting, a few machines parked in Karns and Powell for a couple weeks could do the job.