Recode Draft 4 on fast track to MPC

Nick Della VolpeOur Town Leaders

A dozen members of the 20-member Recode Knoxville Stakeholder Advisory Committee met with MPC executive director Gerald Green and City Codes director Peter Ahrens for four hours on Jan. 3 to discuss many topics and changes recently made to Draft 4 of the Recode document, titled “Public Hearing Draft.” Director Green made clear that the current draft will go before the full planning commission for recommendation for approval to City Council next week, at its Jan. 10 monthly meeting. Green added that comments will still be welcome after Jan. 4, but the logistics of correcting, coordinating with the legal and engineering departments and the Chicago consultant, and reprinting required the near-term cutoff date to incorporate comments.

The revised Zoning Map (as opposed to the ordinance text), which applies proposed zones to all 73,000 parcels in the city, will likely have a longer comment period, since those corrections are handled by in-house staff.

Are we being hasty? Several advisory committee members (let alone members of the public) only picked up their copy of the new draft at the outset of the meeting. The printed copy was made available at the MPC offices late Dec. 27 (although the Recode website had it online before Christmas). Needless to say, family gatherings, holiday travel and year-end celebrations have made it likely that only a few citizens have read the latest draft before this week … if then. Draft 4 contains many additions and deletions from Draft 3.

Green rejected the suggestion that more time be allowed to review and digest this 287-page dense draft and submit comments. He remarked, “We’ve been at this for two years.” True … if we focus only on internal staff’s involvement. The public did not see the first Recode draft until late March/early April 2018, some nine months ago. Later drafts (before this one) were issued in late July and October. The December “Public Hearing Draft” added whole chapters on parking requirements, landscaping and signs to the already-dense legal-language text, as well as many redlined changes laced throughout the draft’s nearly 300 pages.

Why act on Jan. 10, you ask? It is clear Mayor Rogero wants the final Recode on her desk by March, before the mayoral race begins in the spring. We should not fear public debate.

Where does that leave the rest of us? Additional changes will have to be addressed by City Council. It plans several Recode workshops in January and February, assuming MPC approves the plan. Vice Mayor Finbarr Saunders suggested council is considering Jan. 16, 21, 28 and Feb. 5, 16 as possible available dates for workshops. Hopefully, neighborhood groups will have completed their homework by then. The Community Design Center will have a design workshop (or charrette) on several example projects for architects and designers on Feb. 1, to identify implementation problems.

Progress made? Yes. A number of earlier concerns have been addressed by MPC staff in the nine months since Recode first became available for public review. But the text has grown substantially since the initial March draft.

Local focus. The good news is that the Jan. 3 meeting seemed heavily focused on local issues. Representatives spoke about the need for better notice and public involvement on concept and other plan approval, desirable landscaping requirements and the need for follow-up enforcement, multiple-family housing, minimum lot sizes and added density, and keeping the new code “flexible” so that redevelopment of commercial and industrial sites remains doable without abandoning protective standards. Ahrens spoke of better engineering coordination with the planners but noted limitations on enforcement staff to force compliance with standards, like landscaping.

More work is needed. There are still many previously submitted comments not included in Draft 4. The initial question remains: Where are we headed? Knoxville’s charter mandates that zoning laws must be consistent with the comprehensive plans adopted by the city, i.e., you first adopt the general direction, then pass zoning ordinances that implement it.

Lots of text corrections are still needed. For example: Recode recognizes that approvals under it are to be consistent with the General Plan and its components, “including sector plans, corridor plans and related documents.”What happened to adopted one-year plans? That is often where the community addresses land-use changes. And what are “related documents?” An opportunity for mischief? Or just loose language? There are pages of these types of questions – kinks to be ironed out before we reach home base.

Conclusion. The future of zoning in Knoxville is being affected. Citizens need to stay vigilant before unforeseen changes literally get poured into concrete forms. Neighborhoods in particular must stay on top of this ever-changing code and keep their city council members informed. Remember: Every parcel of land in the city is being rezoned. Some of those changes might impact your block.

This proposal will soon be on the city council’s desk. Help them get it right.

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