Knox County’s Perfect Storm

How poorly planned and regulated residential development is overwhelming our county budget and infrastructure. Building is booming but schools, roads, and sewers are overwhelmed.

This week schools were closed due to dangerous road conditions after heavy rains overwhelmed area drainage systems. Streets flooded, known flood-prone areas flooded again, mudslides once more went into our storm drains and waterways and residents whose homes flooded before have found no relief since last year’s floods. Like last year, at least one citizen was killed.

We have told you here how very much our volunteer team has learned. It is important we share those lessons with you so we can go forward together now that we understand the problems and know what must be done.

Over the coming days, we plan to post some of our most important lessons.
First, in case you are new, here is some background.

How NCA was born –
A huge problem, in the form of an over-ambitious 700 + home development was thrown onto our doorsteps and couldn’t be ignored. By anyone’s measure, it was not a safe or responsible plan and that brought us together.

What we saw –
Knox County’s remarkable willingness to quickly approve and then worse, to publicly offer what we believe are specious justifications and promises we knew the county could not keep, was to every citizen we met an outrageous disregard for public safety and quality of life – and certainly not in the public interest.

What happened next?
What happened next is a remarkable experience in grassroots citizenship we should all be glad is taking place here in our community and now.

Who are we?
I’m a retired grandmother who was recovering from surgery when Bryan Spears, a retail manager, and distant neighbor knocked on my door. I had zero interest in adding anything to my very full plate – until I began to learn the facts. Then I was hooked. Bryan and I talked to our neighbors. They were in. They told their friends. They joined us and so it went.

Very soon other neighborhoods facing similar problems starting calling for help. At the county public meetings, we found leaders of other groups across the county with identical concerns. We formed an organization – Knox County Planning Alliance. The community, from the mighty to the meek, galvanized!

What’s the real problem?
We quickly realized that the development proposal that brought us together was only the tip of an iceberg of citizen anger and frustration with Knox County’s handling of planning.

The perceived problem around which there was such strong consensus that we were able to raise thousands of dollars to fund legal action, is what all saw as a reckless storm of development approvals – regardless of the consequences to the citizens and taxpayers. Many believed a handful of people were forcing, by way of their control of processes downtown, the ruin of a beautiful, vibrant community.

Why does it matter?
Those with a sophisticated knowledge of good planning (volunteer engineers, economists, planners, businessmen) showed us that the door is closing on Knox County’s ability to recover from about two decades of poor planning. Once land is developed it is rarely economically feasible to change its use, for example to smart new business uses that could greatly benefit the county’s revenue stream.

Knox County is property tax dependent. Politicians, too often with eyes first on personal careers and seeking to tout low taxes, have depended on the property tax model without developing other revenue streams. That drives residential development and explains why our mayors push it so hard. Residential development also benefits its downstream businesses that tend to align politically with the county mayors.

What happens then?
When subdivisions are, for example, put on the cheaper land on the county’s outskirts without adequate planning, other uses are foreclosed and at the same time encumber the county’s budget for roads, schools, fire and police protection. When subdivisions are built densely on closer in infill land, that typically is land previously passed over due to its drainage or slope issues, traffic and storm and wastewater problems are created. Those also hit the county’s budget. As soon as a new school is built the developers are there to overfill it and the problem for the taxpayer/citizens is exacerbated because the school board was not even in the loop of decision making and is caught unfunded and unprepared. The same is true of fire halls and other emergency response resources. (As an aside, judging from the presentation to county commission we saw during last year’s flooding, the emergency systems have actually done a better job of long-range planning than the county itself.)

Who are we to tackle such problems?
As we stood to oppose the Tooles Bend Road development proposal our opponents immediately worked to discredit us by characterizing us as a few people who opposed development in any form and certainly not in our backyards. That was so untrue that we laughed. But importantly we learned that is a common mindset of the planning commission and on county commission. We leaned to grieve for the small neighborhood groups that came to the public hearings to plead their cases for relief.

Among us, on our leadership team or otherwise supporting with their wealth and wisdom, by pointing us in the right direction, by helping us understand the right questions to ask were and are :
very successful developers,
successful realtors,
established landlords,
large and small business owners and,
many others who benefit directly from the development industry.

We are also professionals, engineers, doctors, dentists and lawyers who well understand that a growing healthy community is essential to everyone’s welfare. We are also senior citizens on modest incomes and a few of us live in trailers. We are also clerks and mechanics. Some of us live on farms passed down through generations. We came together because we share the same concerns.

What do we think?
Through today we have not met a single person who feels development in Knox County is being well-managed.

What we want –

Our leadership team agrees with our neighbors that change is needed to Knox County processes and people. Unwise development practices that benefit a few but cost many must not be Knox County’s future.

Until now there have been some protections in place – forced upon Knox County by past abuses that brought lawsuits and forced the state to put laws in place – a mandate for a Growth Plan (which has been ignored, by-passed and allowed to languish). Now, those who control and benefit from unregulated development seek to undo even that. We feel the mayor stacked the deck on the stakeholder committee he assembled to try to modify the law. Even then, the effort failed. But he has pledged to go forward however he must to change the law.

Aligned with the mayor the builder/developer industry is well organized under the leadership of developer Scott Davis who feels regulations inhibit and make development more costly. Mr. Davis is a former commissioner who is unabashedly pro-development and is frequently seen in the City County Building making his views heard. Likewise, the realtors and other homebuilders are organized and have a lobbyist who promotes their views in Nashville.

As you have seen, we have had our hands full fighting back for neighborhoods and good planning. Recently, after the mayor’s coalition was successful in getting their plans through Knox County Commission and Knoxville City Council, the Farragut Board of Aldermen and Mayor refused to support the county mayor’s push to gut key elements of the Growth Plan. Now a bill has been introduced in Nashville that would by-pass Knox County citizens. We must stop that end-run around Knox Countians

At the same time, the mayor and his allies are asserting that the Growth Plan has sunset (due to neglect/failure to update as required). Legal scholars dispute the mayor and his law director’s opinion and point out that it conflicts with the state attorney general’s opinion.

What’s next?
As soon as we have more information on how to most effectively address the mayor’s efforts we will post it here. Immediately we must go to the ballot box to retain our county commission friends and to reject those who will not represent us well. We will continue to report here the candidate positions and profiles as we gather them.

We will also be posting our analysis of Knox County economics.

Stay tuned.