Even when a new development plan is finalized by Advance Knox, community advocates contend success will require a change in philosophy, an emphasis on protecting the rights of the average citizen, and a willingness to strictly adhere to the county’s first comprehensive master development plan.
Bryan Spears’ crash course in Knox County development came after the approval of more than 600 homes on 250 acres in his rural community along Tooles Bend between Northshore Drive and the Tennessee River.
The community, Post Oak Bend LLC, would have added more than 6,000 car trips per day to the neighborhood and featured a sewage treatment plant across the street from his country home. Spears became a founding member of Northshore Corridor Association, which used funding from private residents and more than a dozen homeowners associations to fight the county. The group won in court and successfully defended the decision on appeal.
Spears would like to see a new plan, but says Post Oak Bend, like too many other local developments, was not approved under the existing development plan and zoning ordinances. Community advocates argue that routinely granting concessions to developers too often leaves residents to fend for themselves.
In fact, so many neighborhood advocacy groups have sprung up that they formed an umbrella organization, Knox County Planning Alliance, to share information, resources and strategies. KCPA President Kevin Murphy applauds the Advance Knox effort for seeking input and being inclusive at each stage of the process.
But Murphy counts himself among a number of knowledgeable citizen advocates who contend the process too often favors developers. The Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commission, a 15-member volunteer board appointed by both the Knox County and Knoxville mayors and charged with approving developments, has eight commissioners involved in the development industry, including commercial and residential developers, mortgage brokers and real estate agents, like estate agents in limehouse.
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who appoints eight of the 15 members (Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon appoints the remaining seven), said he selects the most qualified candidates who are willing and able to serve in the volunteer position, which requires weekday attendance at meetings and hearings.
“Folks in the real estate industry bring with them a lot of knowledge about zoning and land use,” Jacobs said. “I personally have appointed a number of people who are not in the real estate business. But, quite frankly, the majority of applicants are in the real estate business.”
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Planning Commission Chairman Tim Hill, co-founder of Hatcher-Hill Properties, a real estate development, brokerage and management firm, said industry knowledge is critical because it allows planning commissioners to foresee consequences of their decisions.
“Wouldn’t you want land-use people deciding land-use issues,” Hill said. “You don’t want a car mechanic on the medical board at UT.”
Josh Sanderson, whose family has operated Smithbilt Homes and built more than 35 local communities over three generations, said he remembers when his grandfather faced county commissioners charged with making such decisions without any working knowledge of the industry.
“I am okay with the planning commission, a non-elected body appointed by the mayors, having some knowledge of planning development and the real estate industry,” Sanderson said. “(Elected representatives) just don’t understand why a plan has to be how it is because they are not in it everyday.”
County Commissioner Kim Frazier, who was elected last year on a platform of smart growth, said she would like to see a more diverse board that better represents the community.
“I think going forward that both mayors will look at what skills and expertise do we need and let’s really try to bring balance,” she said. “They realize this has been heavily stacked by folks who have been professionals in the development community and you absolutely need those people but I think you will see a more comprehensive approach to the appointments.”
Advocating for Residents
Still, community advocates say the board’s primary responsibility should be to the community at large.
“The laws are really designed to protect people just like me. But we have a planning program as a whole at the county that is completely oriented toward the developers,” Spears said. “You can put anything you want in planning documents but if you don’t have people in country offices that are going to follow that plan, then it doesn’t matter.”
They argue that development approvals too often include a significant number of concessions and deviations from existing plans, including zoning, land use and density restrictions.
“Way too often the (planning commission) is willing to make those concessions. That’s not really the function of the (planning commission) – their job is to make sure people are abiding by the rules as they are,” Spears said.
As Murphy notes, citizens are already at a disadvantage. When residents spot a notice of a planned zoning change in their area, they typically don’t even know what the sign means or what to do. And yet the process is being made even more difficult and expensive.
Following Northshore Corridor Association’s successful fight against the Post Oak Bend LLC development, commissioners streamlined the appeals process. The move eliminates citizens’ rights to contest development plans to the Board of Zoning Appeals, unless developers agree to go through the process. County officials cited lengthy appeals amid the increasing demand for housing, while Murphy and other community organizations argue most community groups will not be able to put up an expensive court fight.
Commissioner Frazier says getting everyone behind a new plan will go a long way toward eliminating many of the deviations planners currently approve as a result of antiquated planning documents and zoning regulations.
“We have realigned some key staff people – that will really be a large portion of their job to make sure plans are being properly implemented,” Frazier said. “We understand why the plans are being amended every month and getting approvals for rezoning; it is because the plans are so old and the zoning is so outdated that they feel like the precedent has been set by prior approvals.”
But Murphy sees a more proactive planning board as critical to the success of the new plan.
“The planning commission has said they lack (enforceable) standards,” Murphy said. “But I think they should have been a lot more critical and a lot more engaged in the process. I think the planning commission has needed to step up for a while and has been loafing along.”