Construction of a Hillside Plan Everyone Can Love is Ahead

Forbidden Knoxville is in its final weekend at Theatre Knoxville Downtown. A musical skewering of local politics, the play sold out this past weekend and will surely sell out its last shows. Fortunately, the drama of local politics never ends.

Case in point, the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection plan failed to pass County Commission by a single vote. Commissioner Richard Briggs seemed particularly torn between intellect—a surgeon, Briggs is capable of sorting through a barrage of nonsense to find the facts—and his admiration for greed.

If you toke deeply on free-market ideals, greed morphs from a deadly sin into a badge of distinction. Markets reward quality, therefore those who are wealthy must be right; those who are poor must be wrong. Common among Republicans like Briggs, market zealotry is a self-affirming philosophy that smudges out the need for critical thinking. Correctness is determined by who speaks rather than by what is said.

Briggs was trapped. His personal assessment of the hillside plan clashed with what people he respects were telling him. The views of those who make a lot of money in real estate and development are important. If they make no sense, what can you do? Briggs resolved the dilemma by siding with power, and the hillside plan was rejected.

It is not dead, though no one seems sure what is next.

What is supposed to happen—what happens routinely—is Commission tells MPC why they reject a plan and how to amend it to gain approval. This was supposed to happen when Commission rejected the East County Sector Plan, but the vote was so emotionally charged, Chairman Mike Hammond lost track of procedure and adjourned the meeting with business unfinished. With the hillside plan, the job is not so much unfinished as barely started.

If your primary objective is delay, local government is here to please. County government has a long history of delays and a toolshed of tricks, but recent votes have a revealed a new tool in the arsenal.

The civil suit that overturned Commission’s approval of the Midway Business Park resulted in a significant court decision: Government bodies can amend sector plans only if identifiable, articulated changes of circumstance exist to justify the amendments. This is good. That same court case, however, spawned a delay demon.

The initial injunction was granted because of a procedural irregularity. Local officials became confused and touchy about the technicality. Since the injunction, MPC Executive Director Mark Donaldson has repeatedly explained to MPC and the legislative bodies that, procedurally, it takes separate votes to reject a plan and then to recommend changes. It does not take separate deliberations.

With the Midway decision, as with most decisions, Commission deliberated over how to change the plan while deciding whether to accept or reject it. By accident, the vote on those changes did not happen until the next meeting. With the hillside plan, the decision to accept or reject became an event unto itself. Commission made no effort to explore possible changes because a demon had frightened some into thinking Commission was not allowed to make changes.

This apparition was absent from Thursday’s meeting between members of Commission and City Council. Donaldson sat in the audience, and County Law Director Joe Jarret kept quiet, deferring to his more experienced city counterpart. Though procedures had not changed, when City Council’s attorney Charles Swanson explained them, they made sense. Commission can change the hillside plan after all. We knew it all along!

With the path forward suddenly clear, Commission and Council agreed to convene, discuss flaws in the plan, and find ways to mend them. Whatever they decide will be ratified by two separate votes, one by Council, the other by Commission, then the ball will be back in MPC’s court.

The potential for drama is so high, a professional facilitator is being brought in. While watching Forbidden Knoxville last weekend, it dawned on me that Pat Summitt is perfect for the role. She won’t take crap from angry rich guys, plus she’d force everyone to finish the job before basketball season.

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