Recode: Poised at the finish line? Or a forced finish?

Nick Della VolpeOur Town Leaders

Knoxville City Council will take up Recode today (7/30). It’s apparent that Mayor Rogero will push for adoption on second reading of the 425-page text, and a first reading vote on the map, which applies the newly-defined zones to individual parcels – all 73,000 of them.

Council may try to restrict map changes to correcting a few technical fixes identified on the handout at the last council meeting. The map details have never been publicly discussed, and should realistically be the subject of a workshop or at least a thorough public review.

Council has admittedly come a long way in its effort to clean up and clarify the rezoning text. But a dozen or so topics logically remain to be vetted before a final vote should be taken on that text. Will that happen? Or will this puppy be rammed home at the mayor’s urging?

It appears the pressure is on to pass it as is and leave any further correction to some future date, some future council, or an appointed “stakeholders advisory” group. You’ve heard it said: Recode will be a “living document,” subject to future change.

But this is also law. It creates vested rights once a building permit is issued. Once passed, Recode will allow development to occur that will be grandfathered in and unchangeable under state law. So council needs to try to get it right before passage. Future fixes will doubtless be necessary, but those should be left for unforeseen difficulties, not just temporal dodges.

Why the hurry? The “problem” is twofold.

First, the mayoral and council election primary is just around the corner. They want to avoid Recode becoming a political football. Frustrating perhaps, yet isn’t public discussion the essence of our system of self-government?

Second, the administration is nervous that a lawsuit challenging Recode may be in the wings. Why does that matter? Too many changes now might necessitate a referral back to the Planning Commission, even though the commission has shown it has little to offer at this point.

Such a referral could easily add two months to the timeline, given the advance public notice requirements for meetings in both bodies. Referral is mandated by state law if substantial changes not already considered by the planners have been made in the legislative body.

Is such haste realistic? Why would council push this major zoning rewrite through, with possible fixes still needing attention now, just to satisfy an artificial passage schedule?

Are they elected solely to enshrine the mayor’s progressive legacy? Or, to protect council member Marshall Stair from having to answer tough questions on the campaign trail? Or to help the legal department dodge a hypothetical lawsuit?

Anyone with a filing fee and a typewriter can file suit. Shouldn’t they strive to enact the best law they know how?

Conclusion:  It is council’s job to get this right. There is no genuine urgency. The existing zoning law, modified over the years, is in place and can move any development projects forward in the meantime.

While most council members would appreciate getting this monkey off their back (who wouldn’t?) and leave it to others to clean up later, it has turned up on their watch. Deal with it!

This job ain’t just about photogenic smiles and ribbon cutting. Additional info at Recode checklist.

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

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