citybeat (2007-08)

New zoning code requirements for the South Waterfront fuel controversy

The proposed development of a multi-million dollar convention center has some Norris Dam State Park advocates up in arms

Function Following Form?

The South Knoxville Waterfront's form-based coding, a zoning change that would place requirements on the size and location of new buildings, rather than on their uses, seems headed for adoption despite a feverish last-minute appeal from some property owners.

The redevelopment project, one of the city of Knoxville's redevelopment priorities, is to be a test ground for the form-based zoning codes here if the codes pass City Council on second reading next week. The 9-0 first reading vote in favor of the coding seems to indicate that it's headed for adoption handily, even though it's still the subject of a Council workshop session this Thursday, Feb. 22, in the City County Building's Main Assembly Room. The 5 p.m. workshop was nearly called off, according to South Knoxville Councilman Joe Hultquist, who says that most Council members seemed to think it unnecessary.

At issue is the coding draft, proposed by a South Waterfront Oversight Committee, which went through a half-dozen draft attempts in the last year and a half before settling on the final version.

Even then, it wasn't final. Submitted to the Metropolitan Planning Commission, the coding was modified in a compromise with an opposing group of property owners who want more flexibility than the coding draft would allow.

The group, represented by attorney Arthur Seymour Jr., wanted maximum building heights ranging from 90 up to 150 feet, rather than the 50 feet set out in the coding. There was also a request to move setback from the proposed Riverwalk along the shoreline from 70 feet to 50 feet. MPC worked out a compromise in height of up to 60 feet and setback to 60 feet, but Council voted Feb. 13 to stick with the recommendations of the Oversight Committee, which were meant to protect the shoreline and the views of the river from off the actual waterfront.

Seymour says his clients were "comfortable" with the MPC compromise, which was more "reasonable" than the original limits as passed by Council.

Ginger Baxter, the wife of Holston Gases Chairman Bill Baxter, owners of the tank farm east of the Gay Street Bridge, was blunt in her response to the Council vote. She was quoted as telling Council that their action "ensures that we'll be there for a long time, operating as we are now." Neither she nor her husband could be reached for comment on their current position, but it is understood they wanted a more sizeable redevelopment option in order to justify moving the Holston Gases operation.

Hultquist says the adoption of the recommended coding doesn't close the door to property owners such as the Baxters who might seek to go beyond the coding maximums or minimums.

"Under the ordinance," says Hultquist, "they could go through a review process conducted by a special review board to seek a variance." The review board, to be appointed by the mayor, could make recommendations that would then be subject to MPC and Council approval, Hultquist says.

Seymour, whose clients in the matter include the William S. Trimble Co., Specialty Metals, Knox Riverfront Warehouses and Rinker Materials, in addition to the Baxters, succeeded in getting the workshop back on track, even though he indicates he doesn't have high hopes for modification of an ordinance that was adopted 9-0. At least, he says, there's another opportunity to explain the need for more flexibility in the coding. The building size and spacing issues, along with the review process, are likely to come up at that workshop session.

Conventional Wisdom

Norris Roosevelt Hawkins was born on May 18, 1933, the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed off on the hydroelectric project that would later become known as Norris Dam. The Hawkinses and their newborn son, who lived adjacent to the dam site, were expropriated shortly thereafter by way of eminent domain. Their property became the site of a rock quarry used to produce concrete for construction. The dam was completed in March 1936, and the rest is history.

Today, the Hawkins' son is 74 years old. And once again, the crosshairs of progress are zeroed in on the property where he was born.

In recent months, Campbell County has expressed interest in developing a "Lighthouse Lodge and Convention Center" on the property, an undeveloped bluff overlooking the lake that is now managed by Norris Dam State Park through a permanent public recreation easement with TVA. Preliminary plans for the $11 million to $14 million development include a convention center, 77-room hotel, restaurant, and 30-foot tall lighthouse with a gift shop and viewing decks.

Hawkins, a board member of Friends of Norris Dam State Park, counts himself among several park advocates who aren't happy about the proposal. "My parents owned that property, I was born on that property, it's my namesake," he explains. "I would hope that they keep it as it is instead of letting someone come in and build a place like that."

Billy Minser, another Friends of Norris Dam State Park board member and research associate/instructor with UT's department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, agrees that the proposed development is ethically problematic. "I'm sorry, but that's not what the state park system was established for. They aren't meant to have business districts," he says, referring to the Central Business Improvement District (CBID) designation that has been bestowed upon the property by Campbell County.

The designation makes the development eligible for financing through tax increment and tax-exempt revenue bonds, issued by Campbell County. Dedicated revenue from room rentals, convention center use and taxes generated would go toward repaying the bonds. (A similar financing structure was used to build the Tennessee Titans stadium in Nashville.)

Based on its own cost analysis of the development, Friends of Norris Dam State Park deemed the plan economically unfeasible, predicting an annual deficit of $251,000 with a loss of about $7.5 million over the life of the bond issue. The organization also argues that, with about a dozen hotels within 20 minutes of the park, unoccupied cabins are already available 98 percent of the time.

Minser says he fears that if the convention center can't support itself, the burden will fall on taxpayers. "It's not fair to ask the public to subsidize private business," he explains.

Bill Owen, a former state senator and financial advisor for the convention center, emphatically repeats that there will be no liability to Tennessee taxpayers; the development has to pay for itself. He also stresses the fact that the development will be a publicly owned facility. "Campbell County will own the facility. They will reap the benefits of it," he says, citing tourists' contributions to the local economy as the main draw. "By law, they have to get at least 50 percent of the profit." The remainder of the profit margin will go to whatever company is selected by bid procedure to operate the development.

There is, however, a third party involved. Steve Pemberton owns Lighthouse Marina, which would be adjacent to the development, and has a lease on the proposed convention center site. And there's a catch: Beneath the park's easement and Pemberton's lease, the property still belongs to TVA, which enacted a moratorium on land transactions last year, so at least for the moment, a land swap or sale is out of the question. And TVA Land Policy prohibits overnight accommodations other than campgrounds to be built on TVA land,   unless--unless--the recreation area is owned by the state and operated as a park.

Owen points to an excerpt from a letter he received from Kathryn Jackson, TVA's executive vice president of River System Operations & Environment: "The state of Tennessee has the necessary land rights to request TVA to review and/or approve this project. Any request for land transactions on this parcel, including leases, proposed construction activities, and future management proposals, must come from the state of Tennessee to TVA."

And Owen has a plan to get the parcel back into the right hands, which he prefaces with the disclaimer, "It's a complicated transaction." Essentially, Pemberton will relinquish his rights to the site back to the state of Tennessee, which will then enter into a lease with Campbell County to take over management of the property and will then hire a management team to build and operate the convention center.

Some say it's just a creative way of getting around TVA's land use policies, an "end run around the park system," as the Friends group's Minser puts it. To which Owen counters, "There's nothing hidden. There's no hidden agenda. Everything we're doing is transparent."

Additionally, any development proposal submitted must adhere to guidelines put forth by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC). TDEC Communications Director Dana Coleman explains, "From our perspective, if Campbell County decides to move forward and submit a specific proposal for consideration, which it has not done at this time, the department has two primary concerns: One, the concept must be consistent with facilities at other Tennessee State Parks. Two, there must be a strong financial base for the costs of design, construction, operation and maintenance."

Additional legal requirements include a satisfactory public input process, review under historic preservation law, approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior and Tennessee State Building Commission, and adherence to the state's Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan.

Of course, the whole issue could be a moot point if TVA land use policies prohibit development on the land. Mike Butler, executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation and member of the TVA Regional Natural Stewardship Resource Council, says that although his organizations don't have an official position on the issue, "Our typical position is that public lands need to be maintained for public use."

Does a convention center count as public use? Sam Mars, also on the board of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, offers a no-frills solution. "Let's follow TVA's guidelines. If we follow that, we have no issues," he says. "I realize that you have to have some controlled development, but don't take our state parks. Let them look somewhere else rather than taking something that belongs to you and me."


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