After Two Years, a Plan to Preserve Knox County's Hills and Ridgetops Arises

When a 180-foot water tower started going up on a ridgetop in South Knox County in 2007, its intrusion on the landscape created a small storm of community protest.

The outcry didn't stop the tower, which the Knoxville Utilities Board said was necessary to serve new subdivisions that were springing up along the hillside. But it did focus attention on a broader question: how to protect the county's remaining forested ridges and hills from mass, crass development.

The result was the formation of the exhaustingly named Joint City/County Task Force on Ridge, Slope and Hillside Development and Protection. The 30-member group, led by then-City Councilman Joe Hultquist and County Commissioner Tony Norman, brought together developers, conservationists, neighborhood activists, engineers, and others with a vested interest in land use and property rights. Now, after two years of meetings and public hearings—some of them famously contentious—the task force has produced a 76-page report. It recommends new standards for what can be built on hillsides and ridgetops, and how the building should be done.

"It wouldn't prohibit development on ridgetops or steep slopes," says Hultquist, who stayed on as co-chair of the task force after his City Council term ended last year. "It would give some assurance to the county that those development projects were going to be more carefully undertaken."

Hillside development raises a whole cluster of issues: environmental (water runoff, erosion), aesthetic (the destruction of scenic vistas), public safety (as in the wildfires that ravage California's densely developed slopes).

The draft plan—which is available on the website of the Metropolitan Planning Commission,—attempts to balance those with East Tennessee's traditional bent toward property rights. It will be presented at two public hearings over the next two weeks (for details, see Meet Your City, page 6). Barring major revisions by the task force, it will then go to the MPC for adoption, and from there to both City Council and County Commission. If all of those bodies sign off on the report, the next phase would be the writing or revising of laws and zoning codes to reflect its recommendations.

The plan gets fairly detailed, specifying, for example, what density of building could be permitted on varying degrees of slope—in general, the steeper the grade and the closer to the top of a hill, the less development is recommended. But it also includes some incentives for environmentally-conscious development. If a planned hillside subdivision sets aside some of its higher ground as shared community greenspace, the developers could have a higher density of construction in the lower parts of the project than would otherwise be allowed.

Elaine Clark, a member of the task force and the president of the French Broad Preservation Association, says that provision could actually help developers. She notes that the forested ridgetops are often a primary attraction for people moving into new rural subdivisions, and that the higher ground is usually most challenging to build on anyway.

"Developers have basically stayed away from properties and areas that are harder to develop," she says.

The plan proposes a Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Area made up of property across the county of at least five acres in size and a grade of 15 percent or greater. (It would also include flatter property on ridgetops.) Within that area, the plan recommends a set of guidelines for how much land could be cleared and built on. For example, up to half of property of 15 to 25 percent slope could be cleared, with a residential density of two dwelling units per acre. But on property of 40 to 50 percent slope, only 10 percent of the land could be cleared, with just one dwelling unit allowed per 4 acres.

"Nobody is saying here that you can't build on your property," emphasizes Mark Campen, who chaired the task force's land use committee. "You just can't build condos on certain grade slopes."

Bart Carey, an MPC commissioner who also served on the task force, says there are plenty of good models of hillside development to look at. He built one himself in Sevier County: 32 lots on 160 acres, with 100 acres of that put into a conservation easement.

"To me," he says, "if we can figure out a way to build organically where our developments seem to grow out of the earth rather than look like they were dropped out of outer space, that would be ideal."

Hultquist hopes the report won't produce the kind of opposition seen at some of the task force's early public meetings (most memorably when County Commissioner Greg "Lumpy" Lambert showed up and warned that restrictions on property rights might lead somebody to "bring a gun to the City County Building and shoot all of us"). He says he and Norman met not long ago with local developers and homebuilders, who were broadly supportive of the task force's efforts. "All of them acknowledged the need for something to address these issues," Hultquist says.

Ironically, the plan would not prevent another water tower like the one that led to the formation of the task force, because utilities are exempt from local zoning. But by limiting the kinds of development that could take place, Hultquist says the plan could also limit the need for that kind of massive ridgetop infrastructure.

"If you were to drive around Knoxville and Knox County 20 years from now," he says, "my hope is that as a result of these efforts, apart from the things that have already happened, we wouldn't see anything that would make us shake our heads and say, ‘Why did we let that happen?'"