Mischief afoot? Proposed one-year plan change

Nick Della VolpeFeature

The name of the current zoning game is density. More of it. Developers love it. But the approach taken on the upcoming agenda for Knoxville City Council for the one-year plan (Ordinance on first reading 12-B on agenda for April 2, 2024) is contrary to the clear wording of the governing laws and definitions for land use design.

Skullduggery or no, it feels like an end run – one that short-circuits citizen participation on how land use is determined. It quietly conflates low and medium density to the confusion of plan viewers, and contrary to Knoxville’s governing law.

What the heck are we talking about? Zoning can be a bit arcane. But it sets out the rules of road. Citizens and neighborhood groups look to the One-year Plan to see what type development will come before them each year. It is spelled out in land use maps shared in planning and neighborhood meetings.

Our zoning infrastructure is set out in tiers by the city charter and ordinances. A broad General Plan (a 30-year look ahead), then 15-year plans, then geographic sector-by-sector planning (5 years forward), and finally the one-year plan. That last tier is where the rubber hits the road. Last chance to study the maps and inquire or object to neighborhood-impacting changes being proposed.

The Current City Council Agenda. The originally proposed planning staff recommendation for the one-year plan has been altered. That floor-amended version is on City Council’s April 2 agenda. It has cause for concern.

At the last Planning Commission meeting, Commissioner Nathaniel Shelso moved to amend the draft one-year plan map, to add the RN-3 zoning district into the “low density” land use classification. So what you ask? It’s misleading. If you are going to change laws and definitions, do it in the open with proper public notice and debate.

Without getting too deep in the weeds, the RN-3 zoning district is designed to provide for “medium density” neighborhoods in Knoxville. RN-3 includes more than 10 units per acre. It is characterized by one- and two-family homes, townhouses and limited nonresidential uses that are compatible with the characteristics of the district. The “medium density” land use designation covers primarily residential character housing but allows density from 6 to 24 dwellings per acre. That can include townhouses, sororities and fraternities, and independent living facilities not allowed in other zoning districts included in the low-density designation.

By contrast, “low density” land use classification is limited to a density of six dwellings per acre. The zoning districts included in the low-density designation: EN, Agricultural, and RN-1 and RN-2. It also allows duplexes.

Conclusion. Stop the shuffle play here. The city only recently revamped its zoning laws under Recode (adopted after several years of debate and revision in August 2019).

Citizens need to urge the council to reject this current definition switching game in the one-year plan. If you are going redesign acceptable land use classifications, do it in the open. Publish it in advance. That will require amending the General Plan and Sector Plans and zoning laws. Address head-on the goals and hazards. Alternatively, city council could amend the planning and zoning land use maps. That too would be a public process. Transparent government and public participation are the watchwords.

Nick Della Volpe is a lawyer, a gardener and a former member of Knoxville City Council.


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