Who's Afraid of the MPC?

As the Metropolitan Planning Commission enters its 57th year, it faces budget cuts, conspiracy theories, and agency-crippling legislation. What's with all the hate?

Urban planning isn't something most people think about very often.

We take it for granted that our neighborhoods are full of houses, and our businesses are located on busy streets. We don't question how our address came into existence. We get excited about new developments, both commercial and residential, but we give no thought to the details—the curb cuts for driveways, the stormwater drainage systems, the depth of the pavement.

Of course, all of those things don't happen by accident. There's a reason why a fast-food restaurant won't be built in the middle of your subdivision, and not just because it'd likely be a terrible location for one. There are laws that restrict where businesses and residences can be built—zoning—and there are regulations that govern how things are built, from the wiring inside the walls to the curbs on the street.

Around here, all of these things are administered by the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission. The MPC is both an actual commission consisting of 15 members appointed by either the city or county mayor, and the full-time agency staff—35 employees who do everything from reviewing subdivision plats to planning bike lanes to assigning the address on every property in the county. It's work that affects not just development but also tax collection, 911 emergency responses, and traffic signal timing.

"It's not only important, it's necessary if you want to maintain zoning, if you want to be eligible for state and federal transportation grants, if you want to buy, sell, and develop land," says MPC Executive Director Mark Donaldson.

Yet there are a growing number of people in the area who see the MPC's role as anything but necessary. The county has cut its portion of the agency's budget in recent years. Property-rights activists have increasingly focused their protests against the MPC. In the last legislative session, then-state Rep. Frank Niceley introduced a bill to disband the MPC entirely.

So why has an agency that's been in existence since 1956—its creation codified by state law—suddenly now become the object of such loathing? The answer can be somewhat traced to the recession and the rise of the Tea Party, but it's also deeply rooted in the history of Tennessee and of planning itself. And while the MPC is unlikely to evaporate anytime soon, despite the wishes of some, big changes for the agency could be on the horizon—some that reshape its structure and some that reshape its powers.

At this point, it's not at all clear what the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission will even look like when its 57th birthday rolls around later this year.

The Emergence of Urban Planning

To understand the debates and drama surrounding the MPC, it's important to first understand how the agency came into being, as the concept of urban planning is hardly a new one. Although modern American urban planning began in the 1890s, the idea of a plan for a city had been around for thousands of years prior, from ancient Mesopotamia to Egypt to the Indus Valley (around today's border between India and Pakistan) in the third millennium B.C.

The Greeks and Romans popularized urban planning, building orderly cities laid out in square grids, and the Renaissance brought a new interest in planning idealized cities. But it took the industrial revolution to spur the creation of modern planning, as rapid urban growth created tenements and slums and intolerable sanitary conditions. Change was championed by the Progressive movement, along with the City Beautiful movement, popularized at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (which many prominent Knoxvillians attended). Throw in the dramatic ascent of the automobile, which put an increasing pressure on city streets designed for wagons and carriages, and conditions were set for an overhaul of municipalities' approaches to how they allowed their cities to be built.

The country's first conference on urban planning was held in New York City in 1898. Harvard University began offering classes in city planning not long after, leading to the development of planning as both a scholarly discipline and a profession. Over the next three decades, cities across the country began to adopt comprehensive city plans, followed by zoning ordinances that created distinct districts for different land uses—industrial, agricultural, residential, etc. New York adopted the nation's first comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1916; more than 750 cities had followed suit by 1929.

Knoxville was no exception to this movement. In 1923, the city voted to institute a new government—an elected City Council and appointed city manager—replacing a corrupt Commission. The newly elected Council hired Louis H. Brownlow as the city's first manager. Brownlow (a distant cousin of the former governor of the state, Parson Brownlow) implemented a number of reforms across city government, including the appointment of a "City Planning Commission" in 1925, an appointed board of three government officials and three private citizens.

Brownlow was forced to resign in 1926 after an uproar over a 16 percent increase in taxes—progressivism wasn't cheap—but the planning commission moved forward with its work and in the fall of 1926 hired an architecture firm out of St. Louis as its "City Plan Engineer" to develop a comprehensive city development plan.

The firm, Harland Bartholomew & Associates, had already developed plans for Memphis and Chattanooga after the state Legislature enacted legislation in 1920 allowing large cities to create municipal planning commissions. HBA encouraged the adoption of zoning as part of its work, and in 1922 Memphis adopted zoning, followed by Chattanooga in 1927. Although lawsuits were filed challenging zoning, a 1927 Tennessee Supreme Court decision upheld the Memphis ordinances, paving the way for Knoxville to adopt its own laws in the fall of 1928, endorsed by both the city's Real Estate Board and the Chamber of Commerce.

The comprehensive plan was published a year later, in September 1929. It defined the "principles of city planning" thusly: "[Planning] would make possible the gradual and economical development of an orderly, well-arranged city which would provide good living conditions for all its citizens, be everywhere wholesome and attractive in appearance and free from those physical defects that hamper commercial and industrial activity. …

"City planning is essentially concerned with the physical development of cities. It has nothing to do with political interests or factional differences. The city plan is a beneficial instrument affecting the lives of all city dwellers as long as the city endures. It should transcend all other considerations."

The plan recommended a revamping of Knoxville's street grids, a unification of public transportation, the acquisition of waterfront property for a riverfront park, a public park in every residential neighborhood, civic art and beautification (including regulation of electric wiring, signs, and tree planting), a new civic center downtown, and the building of a new bridge to South Knoxville.

That new bridge, the Henley Street Bridge, did get built. Several other recommendations put forth by HBA also came to pass, like widening Fifth Avenue and Henley Street and the implementation of traffic lights downtown. But then the stock market crashed in October, and years of economic depression followed. Although the City Planning Commission continued to exist, urban planning became less of a priority for the city. By 1945, when John Gunther infamously visited the city, HBA's grand schemes had long been put aside.

"Knoxville is the ugliest city I ever saw in America, with the possible exception of some mill towns in New England," Gunther wrote in his 1947 book Inside USA. "It is one of the least orderly cities in the South."

Still, the city did have zoning. The county adopted its own zoning regulations in 1941, after the state legalized zoning for counties that year. Finally, robust suburban growth after World War II prompted the city and the county to create a combined regional planning body, eliminating the separate planning commissions (but keeping distinct zoning ordinances up until this day). In 1956, MPC was born, with a staff of 14 people and an annual budget of $99,600 ($843,015 in today's dollars).

Within a decade the budget had tripled and the staff had increased to 27. By the agency's 50th anniversary in 2006, at the peak of the housing boom, MPC had 44 employees and an annual budget of $3.47 million. Although the staff is down to 35 (a 36th position is in the process of being hired), the budget is now $5.27 million, the majority of which comes from federal grants.

The MPC at Work

Since its inception, the MPC's responsibilities have increased along with its staff and budget. Over the years, the agency has assumed control of not just planning but also addressing and mapping. This means there are staff members who work on comprehensive plans for the city and county, staff members who deal with the day-to-day details of development like rezonings and subdivision plats, staff members who assign addresses (and reassign addresses when new development causes old addresses to no longer be in sync), and staff members who produce most of the mapping layers of the Knoxville, Knox County, Knoxville Utilities Board Geographic Information System (KGIS). The database that 911 uses is created by MPC staff; so are the maps used by the county recorder for deeds and the property assessor for tax collection.

The MPC also staffs the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization (TPO), which manages all federal and state transportation funds. The TPO hosts the Knoxville Regional Bicycle Plan, Safe Routes to School, and the Smart Trips program, and it determines highway system priorities for the Knoxville region, as well as working with the EPA to get the air back into attainment with federal air-quality standards. Intersection improvements? Traffic-signal timing? The paving that happened with stimulus funds? All handled by the TPO.

Then there is the Tennessee Technology Corridor Development Authority, historic zoning, the collection of U.S. Census data—and the list goes on. In short, despite being neither a city nor county department, the duties of the MPC are integral to the community.

"I think we play a pretty important role that is sometimes overlooked," says MPC Commissioner Nate Kelly, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee who is in his fourth year on the board.

"I think [the MPC] is critical," says Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero. "People care how our city is redeveloped and redesigned. ... A lot of folks in the community benefit from it—they may not realize it, but they do."

Rogero is herself a former planner, so it's not surprising that she's a fan of the agency. However, her counterpart in the county, Tim Burchett, is less sanguine.

"I'm not a fan of big government anywhere," Burchett says. He adds that he doesn't have a problem with the basics of what the MPC does, he just doesn't think the county needs to use the agency as much as the city. "Obviously we're going to have to have codes. We can't have someone burning tires next to a playground. People don't want an adult bookstore next to a kindergarten," Burchett says.

But for those codes to exist, the county is required by state law to have a growth management plan. Knoxville city charter also requires the city to have one-year, five-year, and 15-year comprehensive development plans that form the legal basis for zoning decisions.

Still, the harshest criticism the MPC has weathered has been for a plan that it was asked to develop specifically by the Knoxville City Council and the Knox County Commission—the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan. Donaldson says the staff only drew up the plan after it was asked to by the legislative bodies, and it was those bodies that eventually passed it, after the planning commission gave what amounted to a recommendation to pass it. And, after all, it is only an advisory plan, not an actual ordinance with the force of law behind it.

"Somehow the planning commission has been blamed for that. But it probably enhanced property rights. ... And it actually made subdivision regulations less restrictive," Donaldson points out.

Yet the battle over hillsides brought out the most passionate forces in the development and property-rights communities, some of whom have continued to share their displeasure with MPC at the ongoing PlanET meetings. The three-year-long regional partnership with Knox, Anderson, Blount, Loudon, and Union counties is funded by a federal grant from the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities and has drawn complaints of "dictatorship" and "mind control" from its critics.

Metropolitan Planning? Or Global Domination?

Kelleigh Nelson is nothing if not a dedicated activist. Since her days as a "Goldwater Girl" in high school, Nelson has spent much of her life fighting for conservative and Christian causes—which, as she likes to point out in her frequent columns on the website NewsWithViews.com, are not always the same thing.

Nelson is a die-hard supporter of property rights, and in recent years that has meant protesting actions like the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan and PlanET.

"It's all about retaining the freedoms promised in the Bill of Rights," Nelson says of her concerns about what she sees as the MPC's overreaching actions.

But Nelson is not just your average constitutionalist conservative. She is one of a growing number of people who believe that planning agencies across the country are implementing a sinister United Nations plot to control population and push people off their land.

"They're hoping to get us all into stack-'em-and-pack-'em units with trains running under us. We will not be allowed out with the [animals] to roam free on the land," Nelson says, describing housing that she envisions as something similar to the 1960s Brutalist housing estates of Communist bloc countries. "The goal is control of the people. Why? ... I can't answer that. Except [the global elites] will have everything, and we'll be the dum-dum masses working in their factories."

The genesis of this dystopic future stems from a U.N. document called Agenda 21, which was adopted by 178 governments, including the U.S., at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The 300-page text lays out a detailed plan for encouraging sustainable development at the global, national, and local levels. While Agenda 21 is a non-binding plan that is voluntarily implemented by governments, the movement opposed to it believes that it is already, via its widespread execution, the de facto law of the land.

This might sound like a nutty conspiracy theory, but it's one that has permeated the highest ranks of the Republican Party. Last year the GOP adopted an anti-Agenda 21 statement in its platform at its national convention, saying, "We strongly reject the U.N. Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty." Candidates across the country, including newly elected Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, lambasted the plan. (Cruz's campaign website states that the originator of Agenda 21 is George Soros and that the plan seeks to "abolish ... golf courses, grazing pastures, and paved roads.")

Last spring, the Tennessee Legislature passed a resolution denouncing "the destructive and insidious nature" of Agenda 21. (Gov. Bill Haslam did not sign the non-binding measure.) And the Alabama Legislature passed an actual law preventing the state or any government within it from adopting or implementing "policy recommendations ... traceable to ‘Agenda 21'" or from sending or receiving funds from agencies such as ICLEI, the former International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, now known as Local Governments for Sustainability but with the same acronym as before. (Knoxville has been a member of ICLEI since 2007. Chattanooga, Cookeville, Franklin, Hamilton County, Oak Ridge, Shelby County, and Signal Mountain are also ICLEI members in the state.)

Nelson and a number of other activists have been showing up en masse at almost every PlanET meeting across the five counties, criticizing the process and accusing the MPC of "mind control." (The anti-Agenda 21 movement insists that when planners try to facilitate open meetings, they are actually utilizing the Delphi technique, developed by the RAND Corporation during the Cold War, to steer the crowd into accepting a predetermined outcome.) The antagonism has been such that Union County Mayor Michael Williams tried to withdraw from the consortium. (Since it was the County Commission that had signed on as a partner, Union County is still participating in PlanET, and its Chamber of Commerce has been an active consortium partner).

Kathleen Marquardt, a friend of Nelson's and a recent East Tennessee transplant who is a board member of American Policy Center, one of the leading organizations fighting Agenda 21, says regional plans like PlanET, "controlled by a board of unelected people," are "little dictators."

"This is the one-world government that everyone says doesn't exist," Marquardt says. "In every area that this is going on—if you look at any of those plans, everything is the same! All they do is change the name. ... Every city and town is going to look alike."

MPC staff dismiss Agenda 21 concerns out of hand; Donaldson says he had never even heard of it until people started bringing it up during the Hillside and Ridgetop Plan discussion.

Liam Hysjulien, an academic advisor at the University of Tennessee who wrote an article about Agenda 21 last year for Salon.com, says growth of the movement has been amplified by the recession and the rise of the Tea Party.

"The name itself sounds pretty sinister," Hysjulien says. He adds that despite the theory's widespread acceptance among the Tea Party and parts of the Republican leadership, "It's pretty out there. ... It really is fringe thinking."

Still, Hysjulien thinks there can be benefits to addressing some of Nelson's and Marquardt's concerns.

"I think it's good to have a dialogue about property rights," Hysjulien says. "But ... it's a position that's counterproductive to a conversation when everyone in the MPC is a part of the New World Order."

Marquardt says that in an ideal world, the MPC would be elected instead of appointed.

"But I guarantee the American Planning Association wouldn't let that happen," Marquardt adds.

There was actually a push in the late 1970s to elect planning commissioners in Tennessee, but it was defeated in the state Legislature. Donaldson says that the reason most planning commissions across the country aren't elected has nothing to do with the APA, the professional organization for planners and a frequent target of the anti-Agenda 21 crowd.

"I would say that most planning commissions are appointed in order to minimize the politics of their decisions and recommendations," Donaldson says.

Kelly is more blunt.

"I think [electing planning commissioners] would be one of the worst ideas in the world. It would be an absolute train wreck," Kelly says. "Local elections have such low participation. ... I actually think you would find a commission that would be less responsive to the community at large."

Whither the MPC?

In 2011, Knox County allocated $746,000 to the MPC in its annual budget. In 2012, that dropped to $646,000, and in this fiscal year, the budget was slashed by another $100,000. This was on top of MPC suddenly being charged $184,900 for use of its offices in the City County Building. (Until Burchett took office, its use of the space had previously been considered an in-kind contribution from the county.) MPC also pays the county $515,258 to enroll its employees in the county's health insurance, 401(k), and other benefit plans.

Compare this to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, which received over $1 million more in county and city funds than MPC did in its most recent budget.

"Generally, when compared to other joint city-county planning agencies in the region, we rank toward the bottom in terms of the amount of local government resources committed to the budget," Donaldson says.

When the county found itself with a surprise surplus revenue last September, Donaldson went before Commission to request an increase back to the previous year's funding levels, in order to hire two additional staff members to improve the county's addressing and KGIS mapping. He was shot down.

As planning begins for the next fiscal year, there's a good chance that the county will continue to cut MPC's budget, or even eliminate it entirely.

"I think we can just use them in an advisory position," Burchett says. "I think we can do ... a set fee that they would charge us that we would pay. We [would] pay a flat rate when we use them, whereas now we're paying whether we use them or not."

Surprisingly, Donaldson is okay with that.

"Collectively, local funds make up about a third of our budget—from the city, the county, and fees that we collect. The county's about 10 percent of the budget, and when you deduct the charges they make against us, that's 5 percent of the budget," Donaldson says. He adds that even before Burchett took office, the county had considered using MPC on a contract basis, but MPC's studies have shown it would actually cost the county more.

"The idea of saving money by doing it on a contract basis isn't holding up," Donaldson says. "But we're happy to pursue that because quite literally everything we do is in Knox County, and only half of what we do is in the city."

The city, on the other hand, is dedicated to preserving MPC and has actually increased its budget, from $737,550 in 2006 to $905,000 the past three years.

"People in the city want to see good, sensible planning. I have never sensed any lack of support for planning in the city," says Rogero.

One thing that might happen is that the city could take over MPC.

"I have been an advocate of being a part of the city, and there seems to be some sentiment for that happening," Donaldson says.

Rogero confirms there have been "informal discussions" about turning MPC from an independent agency to a city department but declines to say how close it is to becoming reality.

"We believe in MPC. But we believe the county also has a need for that function," Rogero says.

Burchett says he would be fine with the takeover.

"If the city wants to keep maintaining them, that's their prerogative," Burchett says.

Burchett, it should be noted, does not agree with the anti-Agenda 21 movement; he just wants to save money. But his opinion isn't shared by all of his former colleagues in the state Legislature. If it were up to now-Sen. Niceley, he'd not only abolish the planning commission, as his bill of last year proposed, but he'd also get rid of zoning entirely.

"The counties [in Tennessee] that don't having a planning commission are growing faster than those that are," Niceley says. "Houston, Texas, doesn't have zoning, and they're doing just fine. In fact, I think Texas outlaws zoning."

While it's true that Houston doesn't have zoning, developers there utilize covenants and deed restrictions to serve much the same function—the city even has an office dedicated to enforcing violations of deed restrictions. And although counties in Texas are legally prohibited from implementing zoning, cities in Texas can, and do. (In fact, Donaldson was a planner for the city of Denton, Texas, before taking a non-governmental job in Dallas and then ending up in Knoxville.)

More importantly, Niceley's wrong about zoning in Tennessee. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the seven fastest-growing counties in the state are Williamson, Rutherford, Fayette, Wilson, Montgomery, Sevier, and Loudon Counties; all seven have planning commissions (and zoning ordinances) on the books.

Of course, Niceley's well aware that his bill last session to dismantle the MPC was destined to go nowhere. This session, despite no longer representing any part of Knox County in his new Senate district, Niceley will likely be introducing a bill that will limit the powers of planning commissions across the state—he says on behalf of the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce.

"[The Chambers] are saying that the planning commissions are killing jobs. They're self-serving, they slow growth, they kill jobs. They have too much power," Niceley says. "The staff's the trouble! The staff runs it! They think it's their duty to stop everything that comes in the county!"

Niceley says he's not sure what will be in the legislation, as the Chamber's lawyers are still drafting it.

However, Mike Edwards, the CEO of the Knoxville Chamber, says his agency is not involved.

"We are not working on any specific legislation. I haven't talked to [Niceley] since the end of last session," Edwards says. "We have no lawyer working on anything."

But Niceley insists something is in the works.

"They're just not ready to make a public statement about it," Niceley says when asked about Edwards' denials. "I was afraid Mike wouldn't want to say anything. I guess the conversation we had was supposed to be off the record."

Niceley suggests that attorney John Valliant might be writing the legislation. When contacted, Valliant says he has not written anything yet and has had "zero conversations with Mike Edwards regarding legislation" and hasn't "discussed it to my knowledge with Sen. Niceley," but he admits something could be in the works for this spring.

"I have talked to some folks that have an interest in planning legislation, but there has been nothing discussed in any detail," Valliant says. "There is some sentiment in other parts of the state and here that MPC is going too far."

Sen. Becky Duncan Massey says she won't be carrying any legislation regarding planning, but she has heard concerns about MPC from some of her constituents. "There's something funky with the appeals process," she says, although she couldn't elaborate further.

The Homebuilders Association of Greater Knoxville, the local trade association for developers, also says it is not involved in any possible legislation.

"I can't answer for each and every one of our members ... but it is not on our agenda," says executive vice-president Ashley Burnette.

In a follow-up call, Edwards again states the Chamber is not writing legislation that would affect the MPC and that the organization was opposed to Niceley's bill from last session. The only thing Edwards would say that the Chamber is interested in changing about the MPC is what he calls "the pending legislation doctrine," although he notes it's something that hasn't really been a problem in Knoxville yet.

"If the planning commission is considering a change in zoning regulations, then they can require applicants to apply that change before it's adopted," Edwards says. "The fact that the state allows it means that no one really knows what they can do with their property. For a regulatory agency to force someone to do something based on what a city body might do at some time—that's just not the way the ordinances are adopted. ...

"That being said, we're doing nothing in regard to that," Edwards adds.

But whatever comes down the line, whoever it comes from, MPC members say it isn't needed.

Kelly says he doesn't know that further limiting the power of the MPC would even have that much of an effect, besides making life harder for the county commissioners and city councilmembers who might now have to approve things like subdivision plats.

"My perspective is that we have very little power because the decisions that are controversial are those made by elected officials on Commission or Council," Kelly says. "The idea that MPC is an all-powerful body is disconnected from reality."