Will County Commission Defer to Developers on the Hillside Protection Plan?

At the beginning of a County Commission hearing Tuesday on a plan to protect Knox County ridgetops and hillsides, Commissioner Tony Norman framed the effort as a clash between "old-guard development interests in this county" and "a reasoned approach to planning."

He was right about the "old guard"—at the hearing, a parade of mostly gray-haired, veteran developers and builders vilified the plan as a governmental land-grab that would restrict the use of thousands of acres of Knox County property. By the end of the workshop, it was unclear whether Commission will pass or even vote on the plan at next Monday's monthly meeting.

The plan was drawn up by a task force that included city and county officials, developers, and representatives from local neighborhood and environmental groups. Norman co-chaired the group with former City Councilman Joe Hultquist. The intent was to come up with unified rules on how steep land and ridgetops can be developed, residentially or commercially.

Contrary to what some of the developers said Tuesday, the plan is not only about aesthetics, preserving the county's scenic hillsides—"Because Tony wants to look at the trees," as one opponent sneered. It is also about controlling erosion and runoff and protecting local water tables. It took nearly three years of work, including 13 public meetings, to put together the final draft. Even then, not all members of the task force could agree. The opposition to it is now being led by some former task force members.

One of those is Gary Norvell, an engineer who told Commission on Tuesday that he always felt that the task force was biased against development. He noted that of 23 members, he could count only six who had "interests" similar to his. (Of course, six out of 23 is 26 percent of the task force; Norvell did not indicate what percentage of developers would have been satisfactory.)

Norman, in contrast, described the plan as pro-development, because it establishes guidelines for what could be built where. "This is a development plan," Norman said. "It's about development. It's about these hillsides and ridgetops being developed."

It offers a complex set of restrictions and incentives. Starting with properties of a 15 percent grade or greater, the steepness of a slope would limit how much and what kind of construction could be done on it. For example, on slopes of 15 to 25 percent, two dwelling units per acre would be allowed; on slopes of 40 to 50 percent, only one dwelling unit would be permitted for every four acres; and above 50 percent, no development at all. Ridgetops would be handled on a case by case basis, but with a maximum of one dwelling unit per acre.

The plan was approved by the Metropolitan Planning Commission in December on an 11-2 vote. But since then, the Knoxville Chamber has weighed in with some concerns about it. Chamber CEO Mike Edwards says the organization supports the ridgetop provisions of the plan. But he thinks 15 percent is too mild a grade to restrict in an area as hilly as East Tennessee. Noting that it would affect 62,000 properties in Knox County, Edwards says each of those owners should be notified of the changes before the plan is adopted. (A similar argument was made by opponents of the plan when it was before MPC.)

Speaking to Commission on Tuesday, Edwards said most people probably hadn't been paying attention to the plan, despite the task force's best efforts. "Be honest with yourselves," he said, "how many people are actually paying attention to what's going on in public meetings?"

Edwards' comments were friendly compared to those offered by several of the developers, who in assorted colorful terms called for the plan to be sent back to MPC and redrawn by "professionals." It wasn't clear which professionals they had in mind, since the plan was drawn up largely by MPC staff, who tried throughout the workshop to reply to—or in some cases correct—the developers' assertions.

At least two of the developers, former County Commissioner Scott Davis and former MPC Commissioner Richard Graf, compared the plan to President Obama's health-care bill, with Graf somewhat confusingly saying, "We don't need to pass a health-care bill where Nancy Pelosi says we gotta pass it to find out what's in it." (The Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan has been available on the MPC website since last summer. It's 55 pages long, plus appendices.) Davis went further, suggesting that the task force had been made up of "extremists."

Norman, a Republican and a retired high school science teacher, mostly sounded weary. He noted that the same people had made the same arguments to MPC in December. "This is absurd," he told his County Commission colleagues. "We spent two months going through this [at MPC]. This has been done. There's nothing new under the sun here."

In the end, the divide Norman outlined at the beginning of the workshop seemed very much in force. He suggested that what was really going on was a refusal on the part of developers to recognize that times have changed—that the "political influence, the authority, the power of the development interests in this county" can no longer dictate public policy. Next week's Commission meeting may put that to the test.