East Tennessee vs. Earth: Growth and Development

How Knox County's growing (and spreading) population is creating more pollution through overdevelopment

Ah, another Earth Day. Time for feel-good features on the local news about greenways or compost or community gardens. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Legislature can’t even bring itself to vote on a bill against mountaintop-removal mining, the U.S. Senate is dragging its heels on carbon-emissions cap-and-trade legislation, and East Tennesseans are driving our gas-guzzling cars and stoking our coal-fired power plants more enthusiastically than ever. So forgive us for passing on the usual green-colored glasses. This year, we decided to look at some of the things we’re still doing to despoil our little patch of planet, and what we should be doing about them: Transportation, Power Production, Energy Consumption, and Growth and Development.

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The Problem:

Tennessee in 2010 contains approximately 41,000 square miles of land, the same amount it did in 1960. But that land is home to approximately 6.2 million people (as of the 2008 U.S. Census estimate), an 81 percent increase in population from the 3.6 million who lived here in 1960. The Knoxville metropolitan statistical area—Anderson, Blount, Knox, Loudon, and Union counties—has grown almost as fast in the same half century, from about 401,000 people to about 691,000, a population spike of 72 percent. (The U.S. population as a whole grew about 69 percent in that period, from 179 million to 304 million.)

Growth has its upside, of course. It indicates an expanding economy, and is often talked about by legislators and business leaders as almost an unalloyed good. But all of those new people have to live and work somewhere, and in Tennessee as in most growing parts of the country, the long-term trend has been to turn green space into commercial and residential development. From 1997 to 2007 alone, according to the nonprofit Farmland Information Center, Tennessee lost over one million acres of farmland—about 8 percent of the state’s total agricultural area. And every pasture that’s paved over or hillside that’s stripped of trees comes with an environmental impact. More houses and more cars mean more energy use and more emissions going into the air, and the act of development itself produces sediment runoff that is clogging Tennessee rivers and streams.

Joe Hultquist, a former Knoxville City Council member who is now executive director of a group called East Tennessee Quality Growth, says, “One of the things that I think is really important is defining what it is we’re talking about when we talk about environmental preservation. Are we talking about air quality and water quality, which are hugely important? Or are we talking about environmental preservation of the landscape, which gets into aesthetic issues, but also involves other things?”

Worst Offenders:

As environmentalists see it, there are two basic agents of destructive development: those who do it, and those who are supposed to stop it. In the first camp, obviously, are the homebuilders and commercial developers who fail to take account of (or responsibility for) the runoff and erosion effects of their projects. Renée Victoria Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, says sediment is one of the major threats to the state’s watersheds. “The number two pollutant is mud,” she says, “and it’s running neck and neck with E. coli from leaking sewers.”

But Hoyos reserves her strongest criticism for the cop on the beat, in this case the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. The Clean Water Network last week released a report analyzing TDEC’s enforcement actions for water violations, which found that while 73 percent of those actions were against developers, 62 percent of them were for minor permit problems—paperwork violations, in other words. Of violations that led to fines, 65 percent were for $2,000 or less. In Hoyos’ view, the state makes it too easy and cheap for developers to pollute.

“If the department isn’t enforcing the laws, then people don’t feel like they really have to obey them,” she says. “What it does is it lowers the bar for everyone.”

On a more local level, Elaine Clark sees similar problems in county government. Clark, the president of the French Broad Preservation Association and a community leader in the fight against a proposed business park on Midway Road, says County Commission has historically been too willing to overrule existing zoning and sector plans for the private gain of one developer or another.

“I think our practice of just sprawl—putting business parks, developing out on the outer edges of the county—is the worst way to go about developing,” she says. “The best thing we could do is adhere to the sector plans. If we would stop allowing variances, most of the sprawl would stop.”

What We’re Doing About It:

Tisha Calabrese-Benton, communications director for TDEC, says she agrees with parts of the Clean Water Network’s report. But she says the agency tries through outreach and educational programs to build more awareness of good development and environmental practices. “The best thing we can do is prevent pollution to begin with,” she says. She notes that when the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, the biggest concern was over “point source” pollution: sewage, chemicals and other waste being discharged directly into water. That has been curtailed, if hardly eliminated, and Calabrese-Benton says agencies like hers have had to shift their attention to “non-point sources” like sediment runoff, which is both more pervasive and often harder to identify.

More broadly, as counties throughout East Tennessee have grown, most have been forced to find compromises between environmental concerns and broad traditional notions of property rights. John Lamb, director of planning for Blount County, says, “It’s usually in the regulation part of it that you get the most conflict of interests.” Blount County, which has more than doubled its population in the past 50 years, instituted zoning only in 2000. Lamb helped lead community efforts to develop a water quality plan and a “green infrastructure plan,” which he says identified the Little River and the Chilhowee Mountain Range as resources Blount Countians particularly want to protect. But of course, doing that will require the kind of legislative foresight and will that East Tennessee has often lacked.

What We Should Be Doing:

Hoyos says a big first step toward curbing destructive development would be to simply enforce what’s already on the books. She says construction sites need to be inspected rigorously; too often, she says, developers file the proper plans for environmental protection and then simply ignore them when they go to work. And when violations are found, Hoyos says, the state needs to put teeth into its penalties. Under current law, some polluting developers can be fined $10,000 a day for noncompliance (up to a total of $25,000 or $100,000, depending on the level of violation). In practice, that rarely happens.

Hultquist, meanwhile, hopes to use the recently formed East Tennessee Quality Growth group to promote models of sustainable development across a 16-county region. He says the conflict between growth and conservation is inevitable, but it can be handled more thoughtfully than it has been in the past. “I think the tension, if it’s properly handled, is healthy,” he says. “But these questions have to be addressed on a local level and decided there.”

A big part of that, Clark says, is overcoming the sense that anyone should be able to do whatever they want on their own land. “People have been telling people what to do with their property since people started owning property,” she says. “When you live in a society, then you have to follow the rules that are for the good of the whole.”

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