Still More Hurdles for Petitions Against a Homeless-Housing Plan

(UPDATE: This is an updated version of the article originally posted on June 2. It appears in the June 10 print edition.)

So what exactly is going on with those petitions against the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness?

Well, it's complicated.

For more than a month now, a citizens' group led by West Knoxville homeowner Ron Peabody has been trying to get official approval for two petitions aimed at blocking the joint city-county effort to provide "permanent supportive housing" for the homeless. One petition would halt the city's current plans to turn the old Flenniken school in South Knoxville into housing units, and the other calls for scrapping the Ten-Year Plan altogether.

The petitions have to be approved by the Knox County Election Commission before Peabody and his supporters can start collecting signatures. Twice, Peabody's group has been rejected on technical grounds having to do with the petitions' wording. Most recently, at a May 21 meeting, the commission ruled that the petitions were misleading in describing the date that potential referendums on the issue could be put to voters.

Peabody says he disagrees with the commission's interpretation of the timeline—he thinks it is technically possible to get the referendums on the ballot for the Aug. 5 elections, rather than waiting until November—but in any case he refiled the forms last week. The Election Commission had a meeting scheduled for Wednesday evening to consider them.

"We do expect the petitions to be approved," says Peabody, who describes himself as "the spokesperson of concerned citizens from Knoxville." (His group does not have a formal name; Peabody says that while he was formerly involved with the Kingston Woods Neighborhood Association, he is not now acting on their behalf.)

A bigger sticking point is how many signatures each petition will require. Peabody had been proceeding under an assumption that he would need 1,968 signatures for each one—30 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last mayoral election, as designated by the city charter. But state election officials reviewing the petitions noted that the referendum section of Knoxville's charter had not been updated since a new state law took effect in 1997, which means the state law takes precedence. It requires signatures equal to 15 percent of registered voters, which in the city of Knoxville would be 15,208.

Peabody is skeptical of that interpretation of the conflicting laws. "We're not really confident that that higher threshold is correct," he says. In an op-ed piece in the May 30 edition of the News Sentinel, he accused the city Law Department of mounting a "legal challenge" to force the higher number of signatures.

But Bill Lyons, the city's senior director of policy and communications, says that is untrue. "The city Law Department initiated nothing," he says. "They responded to a request from the state Election Commission."

Ron Mills, the city's deputy law director, says the state's 15-percent standard is what was used in guiding the 2003 petition drive against a proposed convention center hotel. "It's not new," he says.

In that case, Peabody says City Council should revise the charter so that it can again hold sway over the state law, which he thinks sets the bar too high for citizen referendums and recall attempts. "That's one of the main ways that the voters of Knox County have to redress their government," he says.

But he says that his group will work toward however many signature it needs, though he acknowledges that getting it done in time for August voting is pretty much impossible at this point. "I would expect us to be collecting signatures up to and after the Aug. 5 election," he says.

In the meantime, he has filed an appeal on behalf of a South Knoxville resident against a variance that the Ten-Year Plan has requested for the parking lot at the Flenniken school. The variance would allow the housing units there to have fewer than half as many parking spaces as usually required, on the grounds that many of the residents will not own cars. Peabody says it means the parking lot won't be big enough to accommodate emergency vehicles or KAT shuttles, which might instead tie up local street traffic. And he notes that the first public discussion of the parking issue is scheduled for a June 21 meeting at the South Knoxville Community Center, a full month after the variance was approved by the Board of Zoning Appeals. He calls it another example of the Ten-Year Plan's fecklessness.

"They feel like they've got a free pass to do what they want to," he says.

In a statement to the community included in the city's weekly Neighborhood Advisory memo, Robert Finley of the Ten-Year Plan office said last Friday, "We are aware that this variance has raised some concern among neighborhoods surrounding Flenniken, and it would have been best if we had met with neighborhood residents prior to the variance request going before the Board of Zoning Appeals."