citybeat (2006-33)

Business park could unlock sprawl to the east

Sinking Feeling in Thorn Grove

Thorn Grove Cemetery sits on a hill above the crossroads around which the East Knox County community grew. A sinkhole surrounding it on three sides has started to impact some graves. “There have been a number of headstones turned over,” long-time resident Gary Watson says. The markers have been righted, just part of maintaining a graveyard well into its second century as a final resting place for the farmers, shop owners and preachers of a rural town that was a stopover between Dandridge and Knoxville when people traveled on foot or by horse.

Though it has been home to a broom factory, an early Ford Motor Co. sales and assembly facility and other enterprises, the town has struggled to stay prosperous in the modern era. The general store at the crossroads finally shut down a few years ago after proprietor Bill Emmert died. He and the store made a few appearances on the Heartland Series .

Another crossroad, the Midway Road interchange on I-40, now threatens to consume what is left of Thorn Grove, and sinkholes behind the cemetery may be the only thing to keep a proposed industrial park from encroaching on the hallowed ground.

Last year the Development Corp. of Knox County asked the Metropolitan Planning Commission to assemble a list of potential sites for the county to purchase and develop as industrial parks. Though there are 360 acres available in such parks throughout the county, business recruiters felt this was not enough.

“Sometimes we are not getting looks because we do not have much property,” Todd Napier of the Development Corp. says. Doug Lawyer, Director of Economic Development for the Knox Area Chamber Partnership, explains that available acreage exists in bits and pieces and may not satisfy all of a potential client’s needs. Adding a new industrial park means “another offering of product” and “more variety on the shelves” that he can use to sell businesses on locating in Knox County. Lawyer anticipates light manufacturing and technology-based firms such as medical-device or security-sensor makers will be interested in the Midway Road Business Park, though no tenants have been lined up yet. Access to I-40 is the park’s main selling point.

In October 2005, MPC produced a report on 15 potential industrial park sites, 11 east of Knoxville and four north of the city. No brownfield sites made the cut. (The term “brownfield” refers to any building site that is being reused or redeveloped, as opposed to “greenfields,” which are either natural or agricultural and being built on for the first time.) Napier said the Development Corp. was only interested in sites larger than 100 acres, and this excluded most brownfields. He said his firm actively pursues brownfield redevelopment and cited the recent leasing of 19.5 acres on Baxter Avenue as proof.

Among the 15 sites, the Midway Road site plus a few tracts near Strawberry Plains Pike and a site at I-75 and Raccoon Valley Road offered immediate interstate access. Karst terrain being common in East Tennessee, many sites included sinkholes, with one site off Rutledge Pike standing out as the worst. The Midway Road site was notable for two reasons: It has no sewer lines, and residents expressed strong opposition to high-impact development when the sector plan was drafted for East Knox County.

In July, when the MPC approved a rezoning and an amendment to the sector plan that would allow a business park, 250 residents attended the meeting, waited hours for their issue to come up and registered protests. The rezoning and amendment are up for final approval at the Aug. 28 County Commission meeting.

At a rally last Saturday morning, 8th District Commissioner John Mills pledged opposition to the project and promised to ask the commission to defer the proposal until newly elected representatives are sworn in. Commissioner-elect Phil Ballard also pledged opposition at the rally. Sitting commissioner Mike McMillan did not attend, though his home is just downhill from the proposed development.

Residents worry industrial development will diminish their quality of life. Some have wells that could become contaminated, while others fear increased traffic. They are not opposed to economic improvements, but they want a say in what happens.

Connie Whitehead operated an organic farm in the area for 20 years. She believes boutique farming could revitalize the area. “Small, organic farms are why Western North Carolina is thriving,” she says. She recently sold her farm to Bob Deck, who continues to run it as an organic farm. The experience convinced her there is a market for small farms, and she worries the landowners who have sold options to Lawler-Wood and other developers in anticipation of the industrial park being built have undervalued their land. Others welcome low-density residential development, which is what the sector plan calls for.

To most residents, though, the decision to build an industrial park simply makes no sense. “Stop the Waste” is what signs in yards all over the area say. While the county struggles to fund pensions for the sheriff’s department and to build a new high school, why sink $11 million in land purchases and at least $20 million in infrastructure? “I feel we’ve been steamrolled and kept in the dark,” Eddy Shackleford, a marketing professional whose parents own land adjacent to the proposed development, told the crowd at the rally.

Wayne Whitehead, president of the French Broad Preservation Association, said, “I am appalled by the haste and the secrecy.” A proposed 60-acre development across the French Broad River was rejected earlier this year because it conflicted with the sector plan. “What’s the difference?” Shackleford asked. Deck, the new owner of Connie Whitehead’s organic farm, summed up the confusion and suspicion residents feel when he said, “We have no faith in the people who are making these decisions.”

Community activist Lisa Starbuck said the project would enable further development, to which Whitehead added, “Once this thing goes in, it’s going to set the tone for future development.”

Napier says the Development Corp. chose the Midway Road site because “it’s the largest site where we had willing landowners and proximity to the interstate.” He and a county spokesman deny any broader vision for East Knox County, but the MPC report tells a different story.

It describes a concept called “land banking” wherein a government acquires a portfolio of land for future use. Three areas are listed as potential land banks: Raccoon Valley Road, where the Orange Route promises development potential, the I-275 corridor and the Midway Road interchange.

“This area currently lacks sewer but will develop quickly once utilities are extended,” the report says of Thorn Grove. “Connecting and improving Worthington Dr. to McCubbins Rd. and Wooddale Church Rd. would facilitate other potential business park development between the Strawberry Plains and Midway interchanges.” Those road improvements and others are part of the business park proposal.

In reference to the 800-acre Eastbridge Industrial Park and other potential industrial sites nearby, the report says, “Andrew Johnson Highway, Strawberry Plains Pike and Rutledge Pike provide potential access...not directly tied to the sites and tend to run westward to interchanges several miles away. A new link which flows more directly south to I-40 should be considered to improve the viability of marketing hundreds of acres of potential industrial property in and around the Mascot/Eastbridge area.” Thorn Grove is directly south of Mascot toward I-40.

While officials prefer to talk about the Midway Road Business Park as just a business park, MPC planners had broader ideas when they wrote their report last fall. As graves in Thorn Grove Cemetery slide deeper into the earth, another force may soon be set in motion that will swallow the rural character of a big swath of East Knox County.

SEVEN DAYS

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