Urban Logging in South Knoxville

A commercial logging operation in South Knoxville has left parts of two city hillsides stripped nearly bare and led to multiple notices of violation to the logger working the sites.

But Knoxville officials say that while timber operations within city limits are unusual, they are legal within certain parameters. On land that is not being developed for commercial or residential use, landowners can cut up to 25 percent of standing trees within any five-year period.

David McGinley, planning chief in the city's Department of Engineering, says the logging on the two South Knoxville properties appears to be approaching that limit, which is why the city issued its latest violation notice on March 8 and ordered what is known as a "stump count": an inventory of trees cut to date and those that remain.

According to the city, the two properties—a parcel of about 63 acres and an adjacent one of about 28 acres, between Cruze and Red Bud roads—are owned by Woodfam Investments, a holding of Knoxville developer Pat Wood and his family. They hold thousands of pine and hardwood trees. The logging work has become increasingly visible to local residents as a section of one ridgetop has been nearly denuded. The bare slope can be seen from as far away as Stanley's Greenhouses on Davenport Road.

The city's tree protection ordinance, adopted in the 1980s as part of Mayor Victor Ashe's drive to qualify Knoxville for the Tree City USA program, requires a site plan for tree removal on property that hasn't been approved for other development. Ideally, says David Brace, deputy director of the city's Public Service Division, property owners would enlist a state forester to survey the property and provide guidance on the best approach to harvesting the trees. But there is no requirement for that.

Not that it comes up a lot—Brace says he's only aware of one other city-limits logging operation in the past decade. McGinley says he suspects that the economy has led some property owners to think about new uses for undeveloped land. "Five years ago, they would've cleared all those trees off and built a subdivision," he says. But with residential development still slack, the revenue from timber sales may look attractive in the interim.

In any case, logging began on the South Knoxville sites last summer without any site plan. After phone calls from local residents brought it to their attention, city officials issued a notice of violation on Aug. 4 to the contractor hired by Woodfam, identified as R&R Lumber Co. A permit was granted two days later, and the logging operation resumed.

Three more violation notices have followed. On Jan. 13, the city ordered work stopped on the larger of the two parcels for a stump count, which showed 20.5 percent of an estimated 7,800 trees on the property had been cut. On Feb. 10, the contractor was ordered to clean up the work sites to prevent sediment discharge into local creeks. And the March 8 order has, for the moment, halted the cutting again.

Brace and McGinley say the operator of R&R Lumber, identified on the site permit as Hobert Morgan, has cooperated to resolve each violation notice. McGinley says the contractor has also begun to replant the cleared areas with vegetative cover, required for erosion control.

City officials also note that for loggers accustomed to East Tennessee's generally freewheeling approach to tree clearance, the restrictions in the city's ordinance are unfamiliar territory. Neither Morgan nor Pat Wood returned calls for comment.

More restrictions might be on the way. A city-county task force has been drafting recommendations for ridgetop protection. Former City Councilman Joe Hultquist, who is co-chairman of the task force, says he expects the group to present its final report soon for public comment and consideration by the Metropolitan Planning Commission. Any new rules would have to be adopted first by MPC and then City Council and County Commission.

In the meantime, Brace says the city is also hoping for a matching grant from the state for a tree inventory to survey the age, condition, size, and type of trees found throughout the city. Council approved $30,000 for the inventory in a vote on March 9, pending a $30,000 match from the state. Among other things, Brace says the inventory might help highlight the city's remaining large, wooded plots, like those being logged in South Knoxville.