Here We Go Again!

Here we go again!
County Commissioner Randy Smith is proposing yet another way to remove citizens from the process of Knox County property rezoning. Smith’s proposal will make the process of turning protected areas such as farmland into dense subdivisions much easier for developers. Smith would eliminate the Board of Zoning Appeals!
Once again, we are indebted to Jesse Mayshark and his publication COMPASS for attending the Commission meetings and providing us with the details. Thank you Jesse Mayshark and Scott Barker for your excellent coverage of Knox County government.
Commissioner Smith (a Knox County employee and lame duck commissioner whose term is expiring and who is term-limited) would do the development corporations a huge favor if his proposal succeeds. The proposal would force individuals, communities and neighborhoods that are unhappy with a rezoning decision directly to court. As we know, that is very expensive, time consuming and out of the reach of average citizens.
Here is the story from Jesse Mayshark.
County Commission voted at Monday’s work session to recommend approval of a resolution that could ultimately remove some jurisdiction from the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals.
At issue is the use-on-review approval process. The county’s zoning code allows many potential uses of property in certain zones only “on review,” meaning that each specific project has to be approved by the Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commission. Under current county law, anyone who is unhappy with the Planning Commission’s decision to approve or deny a given use can appeal to the BZA, a volunteer board appointed by Commission. After that, parties who are still unhappy can take their case to court.
In practice, appeals are primarily filed by two sets of plaintiffs: developers or property owners upset that a particular use has been denied, or local residents and community groups upset that it has been allowed.
A proposal by Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and County Commissioner Randy Smith would ask the Planning Commission to consider eliminating BZA’s role in the process, which would mean any appeal would have to be filed directly in court.
“Under the current system, appeals slowly matriculate from the Planning Commission to the Board of Zoning Appeals, and often finally all the way to Chancery Court,” Jacobs told commissioners Monday. “Our proposal would simply eliminate the second step and allow these complex zoning decisions to be made by an elected judge, not an unelected body.”
Jacobs made clear that one of his concerns was the delay that the BZA process can cause for a proposed development. Neighbors opposed to a given use can file an appeal and at least stall a project for a few months.
“The fact of the matter is, we’re in a housing crisis,” Jacobs said. “So when we’re talking about delays, even if they’re only 30 to 90 days in some cases, that is hurting our housing inventory.”
But Commissioner John Schoonmaker, who used to serve on the BZA, said that having to file in court was a higher hurdle for average citizens than filing an appeal with the BZA.
“I think that this body needs to look at this issue very closely,” Schoonmaker said. “When you take an existing right of a citizen away from them to appeal this at a reasonable cost.”
Smith argued that Chancery Court isn’t much more difficult to file an appeal with than the BZA. It costs $200 to file an appeal with BZA. Smith, with support from county Law Director David Buuck, said it costs $259 to file an appeal with Chancery Court — not much more than BZA. And he said people didn’t necessarily have to hire a lawyer to file the appeal.
But Schoonmaker said he had talked to a lawyer familiar with land-use cases who had estimated that an average appeal could cost $10,000.
Commissioners also heard from a concerned member of the public, Bob Thompson, who said he served about six years on the BZA from 2012-18.
“You’re going to price citizens out,” he said. “They’re going to feel like they’re not being heard.” Thompson said that in his time on the board, appeals of use-on-review decisions were relatively rare, and he didn’t consider any of them frivolous.
A few other commissioners raised questions but said they were willing to send it to the Planning Commission for consideration. A final decision would still have to come back to County Commission for approval. Commissioners voted to recommend the resolution by 10-1, with just Schoonmaker opposing it.