At the moment, there is not much to see off the Midway Road exit north of I-40: gentle hills, farmhouses, horse barns, open fields. But for nearly four years, about 380 acres on both sides of Thorngrove Pike have been a major battleground in Knox County's long-running conflict between commercial development and rural preservation. The fight is moving into its latest phase this month, as City Council and County Commission consider a Metropolitan Planning Commission proposal to allow a business park on the county-owned land.
Many residents of the Thorn Grove community remain fiercely opposed to the plan, and skeptical of its economic necessity. "I don't think it's anything that needs to be pushed for or pressed forward right now," says Elaine Clark, president of the French Broad Preservation Association and a leading critic of the business park since it was first proposed in 2006. She would prefer the county to "land bank" the site, let it remain undisturbed for a few years and then see if there are better, more environmentally-friendly uses for it.
On the other side of the debate, predictably, lies The Development Corporation of Knox County, which insists that the property's size and easy interstate access set it apart from existing commercial or industrial sites. "Our inventory is low," says Mike Edwards, president and CEO of The Development Corporation and the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership. "We've been in a downturn, the economy is now recovering, we're starting to see prospects that we've not seen for some time." If and when new businesses surface that may be interested in East Tennessee, Edwards says, Knox County needs to be ready to accommodate them.
The argument is familiar, as is local residential suspicion that, one way or another, the business park would open the way to more intensive development of one of the county's few remaining sprawl-free pockets. But the tortured history of the proposal and the scope of MPC's new East County Sector Plan—which involves a great deal more than the business park—give the dispute a complicated context.
The Development Corporation first proposed the business park in 2006, and bought the land for $9.9 million after MPC recommended rezoning it from agricultural to industrial use. But in a lawsuit filed to block the project, local residents argued that MPC had failed to follow its own rules. To allow the rezoning, they said, the commission would have had to show that circumstances in the community had changed significantly since the previous East County Sector Plan, adopted in 2001. Chancellor Daryl Fansler agreed, and in 2008 he ruled the recommended rezoning invalid.
Community activists saw the ruling as a rare David-vs.-Goliath victory. But Goliath didn't stay down. MPC moved ahead with a full update of the sector plan, and The Development Corporation returned to pressing for commercial zoning for the property. A series of public meetings followed, with Thorn Grove-area residents turning out regularly to voice their objections: that a business park would lead to pollution and traffic; that the land could be better used for other purposes; and, of greatest concern, that any electrical and wastewater infrastructure built for the business park could also be used by private developers and would lead to an explosion of suburban subdivisions across the scenic area.
On paper, at least, the new sector plan that emerged from the meetings and was approved by MPC on an 8-4 vote last month appears to strike some compromises. It does allow for development of the property, but instead of industrial zoning it recommends a Business Park-2 designation, which is intended for "light manufacturing, offices and locally-oriented warehouse/distribution services." It also calls for all wastewater treatment to be handled at an on-site station, which would avoid the need for a new sewage-treatment plant and would not provide developer-friendly infrastructure.
The sector plan, which covers 65 square miles of eastern Knox County, also calls for a French Broad Conservation Corridor to protect land along the banks of the river. And it recommends that residential development in the area be guided by green design ideas about low-impact subdivisions and pedestrian-friendly streets.
But to Clark and many of her neighbors, that all sounds like happy talk designed to sugarcoat the bitter pill of the business park. She agrees that the conservation corridor is an appealing idea, but says, "That's just on paper. There is nothing that guarantees any of this."
She is likewise skeptical of the on-site sewage treatment and less intensive zoning in the business park: "What guarantees are there to the people of this community that they'll be held within those boundaries?"
Edwards, on the other hand, says fears of a new sewage plant and rampant residential development to follow overlook some basic economics: The Development Corporation estimates that it can build on-site treatment at the business park for about $3 million, but a new full-service sewage plant would cost "a minimum of $11 million." Given the county's current financial straits, he says, the money simply isn't there.
There is another question that nags a little at The Development Corporation: What about all the land already sitting open at existing Knox County business parks?
By The Development Corporation's own estimate, it has about 360 vacant acres at its five current parks. But Edwards says the bulk of that is at just two locations: 75 acres in Hardin Valley, which is designated for high-tech companies that could be spun out of research being done at either the University of Tennessee or Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and 190 acres at Eastbridge Business Park, in the northeastern corner of the county. Eastbridge is the one that raises the most questions and hackles, because the most common explanation offered for its persistent vacancies—its eight-mile remove from the Interstate—implies some poor planning in locating it in the first place.
"I'm not going to second-guess decisions that got made a long time ago," Edwards says, "and there are some good companies in there." But, he allows, "it's hard to really understand what was going on then."
Still, he says that the Midway Road park will be attractive for precisely the proximity to I-40 that Eastbridge lacks.
The sector plan next heads to both City Council and County Commission for approval. (The business park land is entirely within the county, but the sector plan includes swaths of the city.) Council has scheduled a workshop on the plan for Thursday, March 11, at 5 p.m. in the Small Assembly Room. Barring a delay, Commission is expected to take it up at its monthly meeting at 2 p.m. on Monday, March 22.
The county commissioners for the 8th District, Bud Armstrong and Dave Wright, are publicly undecided on the plan, though they acknowledge that their constituents in the affected community are largely opposed to it. Armstrong in particular says he has been bothered by the seeming intransigence of The Development Corporation. "I haven't heard any shift or response to anything that the community wanted," he says.
He is also doubtful about the more environmentally-minded parts of the sector plan. "I'm not convinced that we have the mentality to be ‘green' in anything," he says. "I've never seen it happen in Knox County."
The loudest skepticism on Commission has come from Mark Harmon of the 2nd District, who flatly says that he doesn't believe the county needs another business park. "It would take a lot to persuade me otherwise," he says.
Elaine Clark and her neighbors feel the same way. Marshaling her forces for yet another round of public meetings, she says the county is not thinking creatively enough about the potential of unspoiled rural land so close to the French Broad, the Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge, and the Great Smoky Mountains. She envisions recreational and educational uses: bike trails, a Smoky Mountain information center, a working farm that school children could visit.
"I think in the long run, the property value would be far greater if we did something outside the box," she says. "We don't need more sprawl."
Previous coverage of the Midway Road business park controversy from the Metro Pulse archives:
A Disappointment, Either Way By Matt Edens (Aug. 31, 2006)
Secret Sprawl By Rikki Hall (June 25, 2008)
Compatible Development By Rikki Hall (Jan. 21, 2009)
Midway Business Park Proposal Raises Questions By Rikki Hall (Feb. 3, 2009)
Do the Right Thing By Frank Cagle (June 24, 2009)
An Opportunity for Smart Development By Rikki Hall (March 3, 2010)