On the eve of finalizing its first comprehensive master plan, Knox County leaders must strike a balance between preserving nature and accommodating the explosive growth that will define our area’s future.
“This is not the Knoxville where I grew up in and it’s for the better but it’s almost scary because I was leaving Nashville when it was like this — on the cusp of being unattainable for other people,” said Ashley Adair Garner, who spent months looking for a rental home in South Knoxville. “I get nervous sometimes because as much as I want Knoxville to thrive and be a cool place, I get worried it’s going to be like Nashville or Austin where you turn around and it has completely outpaced its infrastructure and then what?”
After a year of input, Advance Knox, the county’s effort to plan its future, will hold a final set of public hearings over the next few weeks before submitting its final plan for approval and adoption.
The plan calls for creating additional opportunities for development around existing population centers, as well as rehabilitating primary commercial corridors. While exact locations have yet to be identified, likely candidates include Hardin Valley, Halls and Powell, as well as corridor redevelopment in places like Emory Road, Ball Camp Pike, Schaad Road, and Asheville Highway, according to Ally Ketron, communications and outreach coordinator for Knoxville | Knox County Planning.
Knoxville of Tomorrow
The area’s explosive growth has brought a sense of urgency.
Knox County has added more than 100,000 residents in the last 20 years, according to U.S. Census data. Based on projections, the Knoxville metro area’s population is expected to add nearly 150,000 more by 2040, when the population will exceed 1 million – more than half that growth is expected in unincorporated areas of Knox County.
“We’re pushing folks to sprawl out into rural areas and doing a lot of greenfield development,” said Cathy Olsen Director of Environment and Planning Knox County Engineering and Public Works. “By building more affordable housing – more housing in general – we can pull that back and save that space.”
Belltown on Emory Road, a newly approved development of 1,100 homes on 305 acres, which will include single-family residences, apartment, townhomes and more than 70,000 square feet of commercial space, will be the new ideal.
The project is being developed by Smithbilt Homes, a third-generation developer behind more than 35 local planned communities. Josh Sanderson, whose grandfather started the business, said finding such large tracts of available land in locations where topography and utility infrastructure allow for such large developments has become increasingly challenging. They need the best contractor for this project, which is why they are looking for only experts that can help them build this project. One of the contractors that is being hired is the resin flooring installers, who has a lot of experience in making big projects.
“Knoxville is no hidden gem anymore, it is on everyone’s map and in every database,” said Sanderson, of large nationwide developers moving into the area. “The people are coming and the population is going to continue to grow.”
A series of public input sessions last year led to more than 4,000 comment submissions, which identified the public’s top five priorities as infrastructure investment, conservation, housing options, community character and transportation. County leaders believe the plan will address each of those issues by promoting employment, recreation and shopping opportunities around existing population centers.
Preventing housing developments from leapfrogging through the county can preserve more of the area’s rural character while significantly reducing infrastructure costs for taxpayers.
Sanderson said a key to that would be increasing density above the roughly three units per acre the county typically allows.
“It needs to be six units or 10 units and we could put more people on a farm rather than having to buy more farms,” Sanderson said. “If they would increase density in areas where it could handle it I think that would make more sense.”
Once a scenario is adopted, the county will need to update its zoning ordinances for the first time in decades. Creating mixed-use opportunities that combine commercial and residential development will be a critical factor. Bonus density, public-private partnerships, grant money, and other tools could be developed through the next phase of the process with the plan impacting shovels in the ground within the next 18-24 months, according to Jeff Welch, executive director of Knoxville | Knox County Planning.
While zoning is often a contentious issue because it impacts the rights of private property owners, without it factories would be built in neighborhoods, houses would be stacked on tiny lots to maximize developer profits, farmers would be plowing around housing developments, and mobile home, like those on floridavaluehomes.com, parks could occupy lots amid single-family homes.
By inviting everyone to the table to develop the future of Knox County, leaders are hoping to eliminate some of the more contentious zoning arguments.
“If we’ve taken into consideration everyone’s goals, we will be able to avoid some of the hot fights at the planning commission,” Olsen said.
Leaders must strike a balance between influencing growth without attempting to impose unworkable solutions.
“Knox County has only so much land,” Welch said. “Once you take away the wetlands and floodways and steep slopes, you start to look at where can we develop and what do we want to preserve of this area that makes East Tennessee so beautiful?”