Hilltop Removal

A joint city and county task force tackles the bumpy issue of protecting scenic hillsides from overdevelopment

The development taking shape in the newest phases of developer Carley Keck's Wildwood Gardens subdivision, just north of John Sevier Highway in South Knox County, is beginning to look downright Seussian. The most visible feature of the odd, multi-tiered development is a severely bulldozed hill, on top of another hill, which is on top of another. The tallest, most central hill is covered in dirt but not much else. It's empty of all but a little vegetation. On top of the hill is a swimming-pool shaped pavement cul-de-sac, the centerpiece of a planned grouping of medium-sized homes.

"Wow," says County Commissioner Tony Norman, co-chair of the Joint City-County Ridge, Slope and Hillside Development Task Force. "It's unimaginable to me how a developer would say, ‘This is an appropriate place for us to put houses.'"

According to task force members, about one-third of the land in Knox County is on hillsides with a 15 percent or greater slope. Less than 20 percent of that land is covered with buildings. Only about 6 percent of steep hills—those with a slope of 25 percent or more—are covered with buildings.

The problem, as the task force sees it, is that many developers want to build on the steepest hillsides in town.

Looking out from Wildwood, Norman notes the faint view of the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

"That's why these are here," he says. "People want that view."

Down below, in the already-built sections of the subdivision, many of the driveways jut off the winding faux-rural roads at bizarre angles, rising up to the elevated homes at slopes that would make a small, gas-efficient car wheeze at the effort.

"Some of the driveways down there are at a 32 percent slope. To put that into perspective, you know Walnut Street, right where it runs by the City County Building downtown? That's at a 23 percent slope," says Liz Albertson of the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission. "I've never seen anything like it."

In order to build homes on those hills, developers have to grade the land down significantly.

"Some of the hills at Wildwood were as much as a 40 percent slope," Albertson says. "So you can imagine the type of grading they had to do."

In fact, the development has been cited several times by Knox County and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC). A current enforcement order from TDEC cites more than $84,000 in violations, in part for destroying a nearby creek bed. Keck is currently appealing that order, saying that it was a utility sub-contractor's fault.

"They actually went in there and wiped the creek out," says David Hurst, vice president of surveying for Michael Brady, Inc., and surveyor of the Wildwood property. "That had nothing to do with Mr. Keck."

According to an October 2007 Wildwood Gardens Phase 5 concept plan application reviewed by MPC planner Dan Kelly, "the entire 38 acres has been subject to extensive grading" and "all vegetation has been removed." The county has fined Keck more than $27,000 since it began, says Chris Granju of the Knox County Engineering Department.

"That's really quite a lot for local government," Granju says.

But, says Hurst, "We have had concept approval on this project. MPC doesn't have a problem with it, County Engineering doesn't have a problem with it. We've done everything they've asked."

Asked whether the property has been unharmful to the hillside, he says, "I wouldn't necessarily say that. Obviously we went in and took all the trees out. And if there had been a different ordinance, we would have done things differently."

And that's why Wildwood Gardens' newer additions, specifically phases 4 through 8—not to be confused with the older, 35-unit Wildwood Gardens subdivision nearby—are being used as examples of the type of development the task force has seen enough of in Knox County. Throughout last week, Albertson, in presentations given at the task force's committee meeting, showed pictures of the new neighborhood. It's being cited as specifically the kind of development that demands a more stringent, well-defined ordinance on hillside and ridgetop development.

Since March, the task force has been working on drafting such a new ordinance for Knoxville and the rest of the county. The idea came after KUB last year began construction on the now-infamous South Knox Water Tower, built along a South Knoxville ridgetop.

Now several months into it, and a few days away from the third full task force meeting on Oct. 16, the group still faces several problems. How will it define slopes and ridgetops in an area with such a complex topography, and once that's done, what sorts of protections will an ordinance include? And finally, how are they going to sell this idea to the area's key players: politicians, home builders, and, of course, the public?

Right now, the MPC zones for development using average natural slope, a system that calculates the average slope over a large tract of land. The problem with that, say members of the task force, is that it doesn't represent all the slopes within a particular parcel. A parcel of land with a natural slope of 15 percent or less, and thus subject to fewer zoning regulations than a steeper area, could still have hills within it with slopes of 25 percent or more. So the task force is looking at several alternate calculation methods, partly based on other, neighboring cities' methods. Last week, the task force visited Asheville, which developed an updated ordinance last year.

Of course, there are some differences between Asheville and Knoxville. For one, North Carolina has a statewide law on ridgeline protection. Tennessee does not. Also, it has a different topography than Knox County. Asheville is a town in the mountains. Knox County, on the other hand, is a complex ridge and valley system. Elevations vary significantly, and shift gradually, even in the most populous parts of the county. When calculating slope and elevation comparisons here, certain ridges that appear significant on a computer-generated topographic map will not actually be noticeable to any observers.

That other cities like Asheville have already done this could work at an advantage when the task force takes its work out to Knox County politicians and citizens, says task force public relations committee member Carol Evans, who also serves as executive director of the Legacy Parks Foundation, a local public parks advocacy group.

"Part of this is framing the message," says Evans. "Either the position is we're pioneering this, or this is something that other places have done first, so we have a framework for it."

City Councilman and Task Force Co-Chair Joe Hultquist splits the difference.

"It's clear in community after community around the country that this is very important. But there's some difference between us and those communities," particularly topographically, Hultquist says. "I think pioneering is not the right word. We're innovating. We're taking something other places have done and adjusting it for our unique needs."

The group also recommended a "Dirty Half-Dozen" of problematic hillside properties and submitted them to preservation organization Keep Knoxville Beautiful's annual Onion Awards, which, according to KKB's website, are given to properties that are in poor condition or could be considered eyesores or could have a negative impact on area property values. The winners of the Onion Awards for 2008 will be announced Thursday, Oct. 9.

"Usually, Keep Knoxville Beautiful and organizations like that concentrate on problem architecture, but this year, since we've been working on this hillside ordinance, we thought we'd like them to highlight problem hillside developments," he says.

As for the political side, between now and the next full task force meeting, Hultquist will meet with County Commission members and Norman with City Council—so as not to violate Tennessee's Sunshine Law—to discuss the group's progress.

The final ordinance, according to task force documents, could include things like reductions in road widths, limitations on grading, and reduced building heights. Task force members also want to see incentives for developers to build at the bottom of hills, including higher density limits and a quicker MPC approval process.

Norman says he hopes it will also include language to limit the numbers of exceptions and variances that MPC or county government can grant to developers.

"If we grant variances we might as well not even be doing this," Norman says. "Some developers stay up late trying to think of ways around this sort of thing.... We need to have a fine, well-developed set of rules that they can't get around, where these guidelines, these standards are going to kick in and they know it, and they're going to have to adjust their development, their concept plan, all that stuff, in order to get approval on the site."