Residents query Smithbilt about Belltown

Sandra ClarkKarns/Hardin Valley

I’ll say this for Josh Sanderson. The guy is fearless.


He stood before 100 or so people June 29 at the Karns Youth Center and took everything anyone had to say. Sanderson is a grandson of Rufus H. Smith, founder of Smithbilt, a local company that’s produced homes since the 1950s.

Most developers hide behind lawyers and engineers, but Sanderson represents his company personally and with pride.

Now Smithbilt proposes Belltown, some 1,100 homes of all types and sizes on 300+ acres that straddle W. Emory Road near Washington Heights. The property extends into Anderson County on the north and to Beaver Creek on the south. You can see the details here.

Neighbors time to talk

Julie McBee Fritts organized Wednesday’s meeting – a time for residents to ask questions and present their opinions.

Julie McBee Fritts (with mic) and Jack Stooksbury

Audience members included listeners – Knox County Commissioner Larsen Jay, Knox Planning executive director Amy Brooks, state Rep. Justin Lafferty and Jim Snowden, senior director of Engineering and Public Works for Knox County.

The audience did not include the other 10 Knox County commissioners, a single member of the 15-member Knox planning commission, or anyone from the school board. Guess they were all out campaigning.

Fritts warmed up the group with a challenge to get involved: attend meetings, work in political campaigns. “If you don’t speak up, you will never be heard.”

Jack Stooksbury said in his 82 years as a Karns resident he has seen only one new road, Karns Valley.

Kayla Mahan, a recent graduate of Karns High School who now is away at college. “When I come home, all I see is Smithbilt.” She wants agriculture to remain in Karns and says, “Let the people in the cemetery rest in peace.”

Ken Dyer, a former county commissioner, also spoke about inadequate roads. “I’ve seen over 90 cars backed up at one stop sign.”

Carolyn Cummings, who lives on Blacks Ferry Road, said Smithbilt “stacks houses like dominoes and that’s not good for the environment.” She said the proposed park is in a flood zone. Smithbilt houses are built so close together “that you can reach out your window and touch your neighbor’s house.”

A woman wearing blue refused to give her name, saying, “I am a private person.” She said she lives in a $400,000 Smithbilt home and she is happy. “Yes, we live 10 feet apart,” she said. “But I know everybody in the 250 homes, even the children. We have front porches and back decks – a neighborhood.”

Dean Walsh said he’s got no problem with the quality of Smithbilt homes, but “what you’re proposing (Belltown) is as big as my home town, Oliver Springs. It’s big enough for its own ZIP code.” He said if that many homes are built, then “Karns is not Karns anymore.” He suggested no more than four homes per acre – but that would be almost 1,100 homes on 300+ acres – all the same size and price.

Stormwater runoff was a concern of many, especially adjacent property owners. “It’s OK to build up against me, but don’t flood me,” said one. “Let’s work together,” said Sanderson. “We will keep water off your property.”

Rick Harbin, whose family developed subdivisions on W. Emory, said, “Now we have 300 acres soaking up runoff, keeping it out of Beaver Creek.” He asked for wooded privacy barriers on both sides of the development to help with runoff and also provide shelter for wildlife.

Julie McBee Fritts waited until everyone had finished. Then she provided some history. Captain John Fox Sr. fought in the Revolutionary War and received a land grant of 700 acres. He and others are buried in an inaccessible cemetery on the property, and Fox’s descendants still live in Karns.

What’s next?

Smithbilt must gain approval from the planning commission and the Knox County Commission. Then, Sanderson said, the company will bring in the engineers for core drilling. State, county and federal regulators must sign off on the stormwater plan. He said the south side of the property will be built out first.

Kids currently are zoned for Powell Elementary, Karns Middle and Karns High schools. But construction of a new elementary school on Coward Mill Road will free space in Karns Elementary and the school board probably will match the zones. Currently, Karns High and Karns Middle school zones extend into Powell to Clinton Highway.

On Wednesday, most of us ran for the door as the meeting wound down near 8 p.m. Josh Sanderson stood patiently at the front, talking with all comers. The guy is fearless.

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today Inc.

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