citybeat (2006-38)

Officials discuss the likelihood of exercising eminent domain along the South Knox waterfront

You can’t say UT never did anything for the environment

Don’t Condemn Me

City Councilman Joe Hultquist doesn’t foresee problems with specific property owners in the South Knoxville waterfront redevelopment zone, but he does believe the city would be remiss if it didn’t remain open to the possibility of acquiring property via eminent domain.

“You have to look at that possibility when you have a redevelopment area,” Hultquist says. “You cannot not address it.”

The Knoxville South Waterfront Vision Plan adopted by City Council in April lays out a 20-year redevelopment strategy for the three-mile stretch of riverside property from Scottish Pike to Island Home near downtown. Its first phase calls for waterfront consultants to identify 12 priority public implementation projects as well as 12 priority private redevelopment sites.

But though city officials stress they are anxious to use persuasion and incentives to accomplish those projects, the fact remains that a number of different property owners with different interests will be affected by any plan the consultants submit. At some point, some landowners may prove unwilling to cooperate.

Knoxville Chief Operating Officer Dave Hill doesn’t believe the issue will come to a head, at least not any time soon. He says more than 12 sites for public projects have already been identified. Of the property owners contacted thus far, every one of them has indicated a willingness to work with the city, Hill says.

“We want to convince people that it’s much better to have a voluntary relationship than for us to exercise condemnation activity,” Hill says. “It’s about using the power of persuasion.”

Hill notes that the city has already negotiated to purchase 10 feet of right-of-way along Blount Avenue to facilitate a planned public riverwalk development; in another instance, city officials have expressed an interest in helping the Rinker Materials company on Blount with a possible relocation.

And at this stage of the plan, Hill says the city has enough options that it needn’t wrangle with individual property owners who might have other ideas. “We have a 20-year time horizon,” he says. “If someone isn’t prepared to redevelop now, it’s really not a big deal. We’ll just go to places where we have willing landowners.”

But Hultquist says there may be a need to use eminent domain at some point in the future. In such cases, the waterfront plan could leave city officials hamstrung, in that the rules it sets for acquiring property in the redevelopment zone are more restrictive than those set by state law. One difference, for example, is that the redevelopment zone only allows for condemnation of properties that are in an extreme state of dilapidation—moreso than would be required ordinarily.

“There are people out there who can draw these issues out for years,” he says. “I think we’re hearing now that people don’t want to see that.”

Hultquist says the worries over misuse of eminent domain stem from the mayoral administration of Victor Ashe and its waterfront redevelopment efforts in 1992. “It was a textbook case of how not to do it,” he says. “Things were done behind closed doors. There was a lack of communication. When this plan came around, people wanted to make sure this was not more of the same.

“But I think it’s becoming clear this is a very different process. We’ve been very forthright all along.”

The South Waterfront Oversight Committee will meet Thursday, Sept. 21 at 5 p.m. in the small assembly room of the City County Building.

Green U.

The University of Tennessee recently exchanged its traditional orange for a more sustainable green. After two years of planning, UT introduced students, faculty and staff to a new, campus-wide initiative designed to spread the word about UT’s environmental efforts. Last week’s three-day rollout, titled “Make Orange Green,” included informational tables about local environmental groups and initiatives; a screening of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth ; panel discussions with UT scientists on their global warming research; and a press conference announcing a new student-led campus biodiesel program.

“I think it is important that people realize we have many environmental activities and programs on campus to date,” says Sarah Surak, recycling  coordinator for UT. “The biodiesel project is a good example of what students are doing here on campus. By providing a hub for environmental information we hope to spark interest in students, faculty and staff in learning how to ‘Make Orange Green.’”

The innovative biodiesel program creates a model of campus sustainability and highlights student activism. Scott Curran, a senior mechanical engineering student from Oak Ridge, and partner Sean Peterson, also a senior in mechanical engineering, created the UT Biodiesel Production Pilot Plant through a grant made possible by the UT Environmental Semester program in 2005.

“Our intention with this program was to look at how, as engineers, we could approach the issue of sustainability on campus,” says Curran. “Our hope is as we refine the system, it can be used as a model for other colleges and universities.”

Waste vegetable oil from UT dining services is converted at the plant into biodiesel fuel by a reaction between vegetable oil, methanol and lye, similar to making soap. The reaction causes the oil to separate into glycerin and methyl esters, or biodiesel. Glycerin is drained off, and the biodiesel is then washed to rid the fuel of excess methanol and lye. Water used to wash the fuel absorbs methanol and lye and separates them from the mix. The finished product, biodiesel, must be thoroughly tested before it is used in vehicles.

The Pilot Plant processor currently produces two 40-gallon batches of biodiesel each week for the UT fleet. Designed for scalability, the plant has a maximum capacity of 80 gallons per batch, but is not yet up to maximum production. Eleven campus vehicles are fueled by the biodiesel processed at the plant, with several more on the way.

“The ultimate goal for this program is to convert all waste vegetable oil into biodiesel for use in campus vehicles,” says Curran. “Hopefully this will provide a model for other universities to follow.”

In addition to biodiesel and other plant-based fuels research, UT is one of five regional Sun Grant centers working to develop new ways to use plants as sources of energy. Leading the way as the largest purchaser of Green Power in Tennessee, UT won three Green School awards from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation for efforts in everything from recycling to energy savings. Last year alone, UT recycled over 600 tons of refuse.

Universities across the state have recently followed the lead of UT students, who in 2003 passed a resolution calling for a student fee to be used for environmental initiatives on campus. The $5 per semester increase was overwhelmingly successful and implemented through the leadership of Students Promoting Environmental Action in Knoxville (SPEAK).

“I think it’s pretty incredible we were able to succeed,” said J.P. Plumlee, a UT graduate who now works with students to implement environmental initiatives on their campus. “There were some times where I thought all our efforts were fruitless. It was really tough for a while. But to see how far it’s come and to see how excited and energetic and supportive the rest of the campus has become to these issues is incredible. I think faculty and staff have caught on to how important these environmental issues are.”

According to Chancellor Loren Crabtree, the student fee generates $450,000 each semester for renewable energy initiatives on campus. Honored as a Green Power Partner by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, UT buys 2,075 kilowatt hours each year, placing fourth overall in the Southeast. UT has also established an Environmental Stewardship Fund that allows alumni, faculty and staff to contribute to environmental efforts on campus.

“It is gratifying to see our students take leadership in programs such as these,” says Crabtree. “UT is working hard to be part of the solution to the environmental issues facing our state, nation and world.”

For more information about the UT Biodiesel Plant, contact UT’s Society of Automotive Engineers at .


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