A Good Summary. Courtesy of Jesse Mayshark
Pay as You Grow?
Two Hardin Valley subdivisions highlight the county’s challenge in funding infrastructure — and the sway it gives developers.
BY JESSE FOX MAYSHARK • FEBRUARY 2, 2022
Hardin Valley subdivisions
TWO PLANNED SUBDIVISIONS IN THE HARDIN VALLEY AREA HAVE GENERATED COMMUNITY OPPOSITION.
Two controversial rezonings approved by Knox County Commission last week illustrated the ongoing tensions between new development and established neighborhoods in the fastest-growing part of the county — and suggested that many commissioners feel trapped by a lack of funding for infrastructure to keep pace.
‘The message is, the developers run this town,’ a planning advocate says.
In both cases, Commission approved new residential subdivisions in Hardin Valley despite concerns from the local community, partly because the developers promised improvements to surrounding roads and sidewalks that the county cannot afford to build on its own.
“Land use continues to be the hardest thing in a growing county,” Commissioner Larsen Jay said during discussion of a development planned for Hardin Valley Road. “Everybody wants to be the last one to build, everyone wants to pull the drawbridge up, everybody wants to wait until infrastructure catches up.”
But, he said, the county simply doesn’t have the resources to build infrastructure at the pace required by private development.
“We’re also in a county that has decided for close to 30 years to never raise taxes and have the revenue necessary to be able to do public infrastructure,” Jay said. “So we have decided as a community to rely on private development in order to push infrastructure.”
It hasn’t been quite 30 years, but it is true that Knox County hasn’t had a property tax increase since 1999. The county’s population has boomed by more than 90,000 people since then, with much of that growth in formerly rural areas like Hardin Valley that are still served primarily by what used to be country roads.
The result has been growing traffic congestion and frustration from previous waves of new residents as still more agricultural space is bulldozed for subdivisions.
In Hardin Valley, the county has responded with a mobility study conducted by Knoxville-Knox County Planning, which identified possible infrastructure improvements. But the options are both limited and expensive. This year, County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and County Commission have asked the state Department of Transportation for help with some widening around the Watt Road and Campbell Station Road interchanges with Interstate 40.
The county’s own resources to undertake such projects are scarce. The county’s total capital budget this year is $28 million for all infrastructure needs countywide. Jay said that at a rough estimate, just widening one section of Hardin Valley Road to four lanes and adding sidewalks would cost $31 million. (Knox County actually has a smaller annual capital outlay than the City of Knoxville, which this year has a capital budget of $48 million for infrastructure within city limits.)
Trading Density for Roadwork
As a consequence, commissioners increasingly look to developers to provide bits and pieces of infrastructure as parts of their projects, as was the case in both developments approved last week.
In the first, a planned subdivision at 11636 Hardin Valley Road, developers Safe Harbor Residential pledged to invest $750,000 in a roundabout, road widening and sidewalks at the intersection of Couch Mill and Sam Lee roads — but only if Commission approved the rezoning at three units per acre rather than the two units per acre recommended by the Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commission.
In the second, at 2205 W. Gallaher Ferry Road, Ball Homes promised to straighten a section of Gallaher Ferry Road — but only if Commission approved 3.5 units per acre rather than the three units the Planning Commission approved.
Commissioners ultimately approved both of the higher densities on 7-4 votes, allowing an extra 132 houses in the first subdivision and an additional 14 in the second, smaller one.
Residents of existing communities near both planned projects strenuously objected to the plans.
“The issue is not growth,” Hardin Valley resident Gary Latham told commissioners during the zoning hearing. “The problem and ongoing concern is this: The growth you are allowing has been done with a lack of planning. It has been careless, reckless and thoughtless. Growth is great when it’s done wisely.”
Representatives of the Knox County Planning Alliance, which represents homeowner groups and preservationists from across the county, said the rezonings sent the message to developers that they could get whatever zoning or density they want if they just offer to build a little infrastructure with it.
“The message is, the developers run this town,” KCPA cofounder Kim Frazier said in an interview the day after the Commission meeting. “And it was on full display last night when they were publicly negotiating.”
Frazier, who is also the founder of Hardin Valley Planning Advocates, is running for County Commission this year, in the Republican primary for the 11th District at-large seat. Questions of planning and development will likely loom large in the countywide race.
The promises and demands made by the developers rubbed some commissioners the wrong way. When Ryan Hickey of Ball Homes said the company needed to be able to build 85 houses on the Gallaher Ferry property — rather than the 71 permitted by the Planning Commission — in order to afford improvements to the road, Commissioner Carson Dailey glowered.
“I’m kind of disappointed that you’re holding that over us, after all the things we’ve approved before (for Ball Homes),” Daily said.
“I’m not trying to hold anything over anyone’s head at all,” Hickey said. “We’ll just disagree on that.”
The argument was enough to sway Commissioner Terry Hill, whose district includes Hardin Valley. She voted against the larger development, but she voted to approve Hickey’s specifically because of the infrastructure promise.
“I’m not willing to give up that road improvement,” she said. “I’m just not going to let it go by the wayside.”
The county is currently embarking on a complete update of its General Plan and transportation plan. The process is expected to take about 18 months and will set new expectations for both development and infrastructure in the unincorporated parts of the county.
Frazier said that in the meantime, Commission should not be approving large rezonings that stand to put county infrastructure even farther behind its residential growth.
“What the community was asking for was a bridge plan while the new comprehensive plan is being developed,” she said. “The first step would be, let’s just uphold the (existing) sector plans until we get through this process.”
But most commissioners were appreciative of the developers’ plans. Commission Chair Richie Beeler noted projections from the Planning Commission that the county will need to add nearly 8,500 housing units in the next five years to accommodate expected growth.
And Commissioner Kyle Ward, speaking of the Hardin Valley Road development, said, “I think this is the first development that I can remember since I’ve been on the commission that they’re offering to widen an entire road, a quarter mile give or take, and a roundabout, and add sidewalks and parks. This is what we always ask for when developers come here, is to do these things for us.”