Recode Workbook No. 2: Preserve hillside ridgetop protection

Nick Della VolpeOn the Grow

At its June 13 meeting, the Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commission recommended that City Council approve the current Recode Text (Draft 5+) – well almost.

In making his motion to recommend the current Recode draft to Council, commissioner/developer Tim Hill gutted the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan (Hillside Plan), by removing coverage from the office, commercial and industrial zones, thus limiting its application to residential zones.

The Commission’s vote (with four dissents) ignored City Council’s recent studied and express decision at its May 14 meeting to keep the Hillside Plan applicable to all zones in the city. Ironically, this same Planning Commission had approved Recode Draft 4 at its Jan. 10 meeting with all zones covered by the Hillside Plan. Did they ever read either draft?

Luckily, City Council makes the legislative decision.

Why did the Planning Commission make this limiting change? Developers abhor all restrictions – even those designed to protect the community’s long-term interest. It’s “lower the blades, lads, and let those dozers rip!” Leave to others the need to heal scarred hills and to cope with resulting mudslides and stormwater runoff.

The Knoxville Chamber’s Amy Nolan and the Association of Realtors’ Jennifer Roche tried this same limiting gambit at City Council’s May 14 meeting. It was rejected by a 7-2 vote at Council. Undeterred, Roche told the Planning Commission on June 13 to leave hillside protection for further study by the Stakeholders Advisory Committee after Recode is adopted. Really? It’s not new!

Virtually all the forest was destroyed in starting this West Knox County subdivision. Now it is highly eroded and no houses were developed.

Background on the Hillside Plan: The plan was initiated by MPC in 2008 and, after preliminary staff research, was reviewed by a task force and subject to public meetings over nearly three years between 2009-2011. The task force included a broad range of stakeholders led by professional planners, including MPC’s then-senior planner Mike Carberry. The process included input from local developers, builders, engineers, Realtors, KUB, environmental and public safety organizations, and other interested parties. The Hillside Plan was ultimately presented to and debated during a series of joint meetings between Knoxville City Council and Knox County Commission, guided by a professional mediator from Lipscomb College.

City Council adopted the Hillside Plan by ordinance (No. 0-185-2011), effective Dec. 13, 2011. It is a part of Knoxville’s General Plan, the key vision document which informs all Knoxville zoning decisions. Read the plan here.

Soil slumping shown in the hillside area behind the playground demonstrates continued failure of the soil even after multiple attempts to stabilize the site.

The Hillside Plan is enforced primarily through the Planned Residential and Planned Commercial and Shopping Center zoning districts under the existing zoning ordinance.

This includes commercial property. For example, in 2017, MPC proposed rezoning property from C-4 to Planned Commercial (PC) in order to deal with grading the steep slopes to build a more-level freight terminal at the Midway Road interchange for FedEx. The Hillside Plan was also applied to the housing development at Pond Gap under the Planned Residential zone (PR).

Now, eight years after its adoption, the Chamber and its developer cronies want to toss it back for further study! What’s next, declaring open season on mountaintop removal mining?

I asked local real estate attorney Will Skelton, who was one of a dozen persons who actively served on the Hillside Task Force, about the Planning Commission’s June 13 action on Recode, to limit Hillside Protection to residential zones.

Skelton stated, “The plan has worked well in protecting Knoxville’s landscape from careless over-grading and steep slope development for nearly a decade. I strongly oppose the recent recommendation by MPC to now limit the Plan’s applicability to residential development, which would allow commercial, office and industrial development to once again mar our beautiful forested ridges and hillsides, and threaten downslope landowners and streams from excessive runoff.”

Hillside Protection under Recode. The RP and PC zones are being eliminated in Recode, thereby negating the primary Hillside Protection enforcement tool. As a result of such rezoning, planning director Gerald Green included full Hillside Protection in Recode with the concurrence of the city’s legal department. The needed codification has been discussed since the summer of 2018.

Admittedly, the language in Recode has been a moving target. Hillside Protection was included in each draft since Text Draft 2, which applied it to residential properties. By Recode Drafts 3 and 4, the Hillside Plan applied to all properties, and, as noted, was included in the Planning Commission’s recommendation to Council in January.

However, the developer lobbyists got it changed back to “residential only” by the time Draft 5 was issued on May 1, 2019. Nonetheless, Council at its May 14, 2019, meeting, after considerable discussion by council members, Mayor Rogero, and public speakers, voted 7-2 to restore Hillside Protection to all zones. (See Draft 5+ on Recode Knoxville website). That decision should stand.

Conclusion. Council needs to reject the recent biased and misguided Planning Commission recommendation on Hillside Protection. Clearing and grading on steep property poses environmental and aesthetic risks that should be addressed and mitigated as part of a project plan before dozers roll. Hilltop planning can also help assure sufficient access for utility supply and emergency vehicles.

There is flexibility built into the Hillside Plan to work around problems and meet developer needs. For example, a density bonus can be awarded for concentrating building on less steep portions of a parcel.

In sum, heading off a disaster is better than attempted cleanup afterwards. As grandma said, “A stitch in time saves nine.”

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