Please take a look at this enlightening article from today’s Compass.
When the County mayor’s plan to weaken the Knox County Growth Plan by amendment failed, a pro-development commissioner suggested a new approach.
The hour was running late at last Tuesday’s work session of the Knox County Commission when the body turned its attention to agenda item 56: “Discussion item regarding the process of Knox County having their own Planning Office/Board.”
How can Knox County best prepare for and guide its future growth?
The issue was raised by Commissioner Brad Anders, who represents the fast-growing 6th District, home to Karns and Hardin Valley in the northwestern corner of the county. He was talking about possibly changing the way the Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commission is structured.
“I think we need a board that has the county in mind,” Anders told his colleagues. “I think we should always think regionally, but sometimes we’ve got to think for ourselves.”
The conversation Tuesday night was brief, with no particular resolution. Anders said he planned to meet with county Law Director Bud Armstrong to review legal options, which he would bring back to Commission.
But it raised questions about how Commission can best respond to issues that most of its members have repeatedly cited as major concerns: updating planning countywide, making sure that infrastructure is able to accommodate new growth, and balancing a push for more development with the protection of rural areas and natural resources.
Kim Frazier, a longtime advocate for better planning and infrastructure in Hardin Valley and a founding member of the citizens’ group Knox County Planning Alliance, said in an email last week, “I am open to hearing and considering their thought process behind the suggestion of splitting the Planning Commission, as long as they are willing to consider that the structure of the planning body and the plans that are produced by the Planning Commission may not be the problem.”
A Joint Commission
What was previously called the Metropolitan Planning Commission was established in Knox County in 1956, under a state law that enables the creation of regional planning commissions.
Since then, the agency has served both the city and county governments, with a 15-member Planning Commission made up of eight citizens appointed by the county mayor and seven appointed by the city mayor.
The agency is funded by annual contributions from both the city and county, along with user fees and federal grants (which primarily fund the regional Transportation Planning Organization). You can see a budget breakdown here.
Its staff prepares long-term general and sector plans for all parts of the city and county, with the exception of Farragut, which created its own Municipal Planning Commission after incorporating in 1980. The staff also reviews subdivision and development plans and requests for rezoning, and makes recommendations on them to the Planning Commission.
The Planning Commission’s recommendations in turn go to City Council and County Commission, either of which can (and sometimes do) override the planning body.
The state’s three other large urban counties have variations on the same arrangement. Metro Nashville has a unified Planning Department, in keeping with its combined city-county government. Shelby County has a Land Use Control Board with 10 members, five each appointed by the mayor of Memphis and the Shelby County mayor. And the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission is nearly identical to Knox County’s set-up.
In a follow-up interview to last Tuesday’s discussion, Anders said he thinks the current planning body is more oriented toward the city than the areas outside it.
“Every time we ask why they’re doing something, they say, ‘Well, we refer back to the city,’ or, ‘This is what the city does,’” he said.
But he said he was less interested in creating a completely separate agency than a separate planning commission made up only of county appointees. He suggested, for example, that there could be a nine-member body made up of one appointee from each County Commission district.
Anders and fellow Commissioner Randy Smith have been outspoken about wanting to roll back the state-mandated Growth Policy Plan that currently imposes development limits on designated rural areas. They argue that it is actually encouraging sprawl by prohibiting denser development where it makes sense.
But Anders said his goal is not just to allow more development everywhere. “I want a pro-county planning commission, not a pro-developer planning commission,” he said.
Smith made a similar argument Tuesday night.
“I know a lot of people look at me and they think I’m the ‘Build everywhere’ guy. I am not,” Smith said. “I am for smart growth. And we need to take charge of our own destiny to make sure we can provide that to the citizens of this county for the next 10 years, and the next 20, and the next 30.”
Not everyone agrees that the planning agency is an obstacle in that effort. On Tuesday night, Anders expressed frustration with two issues outside the planning body’s control: the county’s efforts to loosen restrictions under the Growth Policy Plan and its decision to not include rural areas in a newly created “Planned Development” ordinance, that would allow developers some leeway in overriding existing zoning.
But the Growth Policy Plan is mandated by state law, not the Planning Commission, and it was the Town of Farragut’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen that put the brakes last month on County Mayor Glenn Jacobs’ proposal to loosen it.
And Gerald Green, executive director of Knoxville-Knox County Planning, noted that both planning staff and the Planning Commission had recommended including rural areas in the Planned Development ordinance. County Commission itself voted to remove them, at the request of members of the Knox County Planning Alliance.
Green also said that issues on the Planning Commission rarely break down along strictly city-county lines.
“Often when there’s a split vote, it’s some county appointees on either side and some city appointees on either side,” he said.
Commissioner John Schoonmaker, whose 5th District includes Farragut and Concord just south of Anders’ district, said last week he hadn’t had time to dig into Anders’ ideas. (He’s busy running for re-election in the March 3 Republican primary.) But he said the issues could maybe be addressed at the agency’s staff level, by having some planners specifically designated to handle and think about growth issues outside city limits.
“Even if you had a couple planners who just did county, and a couple planners who just did city, I could see that,” he said.
Green said that logistically, his staff could probably serve two different planning commissions, if the county elected to go that route. They’re already used to administering the separate city and county zoning ordinances.
But he said what the county really needs is an updated General Plan and a clear sense of where it wants to go, in terms of its growth and infrastructure.
“I think what they really need is a vision for the county,” Green said.
That has also been the position of the Knox County Planning Alliance. Alliance member Diane Montgomery, a member of the Northshore Corridor Association, said of Anders, “Shouldn’t he be conferring first with the other parties involved to see if there is another, more effective and cost efficient path forward — for example revising the Growth Plan maps -— together, as has already been suggested by the Farragut aldermen?”
Abbey Harris, a spokeswoman for Jacobs, said the county mayor didn’t have a position on Anders’ suggestion of a separate county planning commission, “but is open to any discussion regarding planning.”
Anders said he would explore the legalities of changing the organization of the Planning Commission.
It appears that it would require amending the interlocal agreement between the city and county governments that governs the planning agency. There would probably also have to be some level of state approval.
Christina Magráns, a staff attorney with the City of Knoxville, said in an email that the agreement can be changed by a vote of both City Council and County Commission. But, she added, “It is important to note, though, that if the County wanted to dissolve the current Planning Commission and create a new one, the State Department of Economic and Community Development and the State Local Government Planning Advisory Commission likely would have to review and approve the change.”
Meanwhile, one thing that is clear and uncontestable about growth in Knox County is that it’s happening.
In the 2010 U.S. Census, the county’s population was 432,226. This year’s Census will provide a definitive update, but estimates based on sample surveys in the intervening years put the current count at about 465,000 — the equivalent of adding a town of 30,000 people, the size of Oak Ridge, to the county during the past decade.
Current projections for future growth prepared by the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research estimate the population to clear a half-million people by 2030 and 540,000 by 2040.
Those trends could be affected by any number of things, from economic downturns to natural disasters to worldwide plagues, but assuming they continue on their current tracks, the county faces a few fundamental questions: Where will they all live? And what impact will they have on the resources and infrastructure of the surrounding communities?
In addressing those, Frazier, of the Planning Alliance, said, “I think that all perspectives should be considered including the long history of decisions to ignore and or dismiss the guidelines and recommendations set forth in the plans; the idea that changes or formations of ordinances could also provide desired outcomes such as mixed use and clustered development; agricultural areas could benefit from higher density allotments with specific use determinations; and that county planning affects both city and county residents.”
She added that she didn’t think any of that would necessarily require structural changes of the kind Anders is proposing. “I believe that under our current leadership we can effectively determine processes that take into account the best interests of all Knox County residents,” she said.