Recode Workbook 1: Lot size matters

Nick Della VolpeOn the Grow

Last month, Knoxville City Council amended the text of Recode Draft 5 in two long work sessions (the parcel-specific map is still in progress). The resulting marked-up draft, referred to here as draft 5+, is available online. It will likely be up for council action in mid-July, after further public vetting.


Why this “workbook series” of articles? There are still important issues that neighborhoods and affected individuals believe need resolution. By discussing them in this series we hope to facilitate that process.

Caution: Zoning is a complex and somewhat dry subject. But its consequences for property development and use are serious and merit scrutiny. Once the bulldozers arrive next door it will be too late to holler. So we need to read the 400-plus-page Recode tome and consider its impact on our neighborhoods and businesses.

We will help you focus on several specific issues over the next few weeks. We begin by focusing on Article 4 residential zones (see also Article 9, table 9.1, permitted uses). This is only the tip of a substantial iceberg, with 85 percent of the 73,000 parcels in the city zoned residential.

Lot size impacts neighborhoods. To protect the character and affordability of neighborhoods, it has been suggested that another residential zoning district be inserted between the proposed RN-1 and RN-2. It would allow the same uses as specified for the RN-1 and RN-2 zones but would specify a larger minimum lot size – 7,000 to 7,500 square feet – than the currently proposed RN-2 (5,000 square feet). As you will see, size matters if we are to avoid incentivizing tear-downs of existing homes.

For decades, 7,500 square feet was the minimum standard for single-family detached dwellings in the Knoxville zoning ordinance, under existing R-1, R-1E, R-1A and R-2 zones. Recode proposes a minimum lot size of 10,000 square feet for single-family dwellings in the proposed RN-1 zone and half that, or 5,000 square feet, for proposed RN-2.

This results in almost all existing single-family detached homes on lots of less than 10,000 square feet being rezoned RN-2, which immediately reduces the required minimum lot size to 5,000 square feet. (The 7,500-square-feet standard – the middle ground – is being scrapped).

How and why did this happen? Recode Draft 1 listed 7,000 square feet for RN-2 lots, similar to the existing zoning code. By Draft 2, this was decreased to 5,000 square feet. Knox Planning Director Gerald Green said this would keep smaller lots from being labeled “nonconforming,” thereby minimizing the need for potential variances for future additions.

At times, Recode proponents have also asserted the need to create more affordable housing. Really?

The neighborhood concern is that by increasing the RN-1 minimum lot size to 10,000 square feet, all single-family homes on lots smaller than that get pushed into the 5,000-square-foot minimum category. The consequence? This inadvertently encourages tear-downs that could destroy the character and affordability of existing neighborhoods.

For example, two existing 7,500-square-foot lots could be combined by developers to yield three 5,000-square-foot lots on the original footprint. And, based on the experience of other cities, the newly constructed dwellings would cost far more than the original dwellings that were destroyed. Scrapping the value of existing houses and adding higher new-construction costs will force those new-house prices higher. The net effect would be to reduce the stock of affordable housing.

Aerial view of Knoxville’s Adair Gardens.

A perfect example of this concern is Adair Gardens in Fountain City. Currently, those houses are zoned R-1 under existing law. The lots on the south side of Sanders, Adair and Rose streets are about 7,000 square feet. Lots on the north side of Sanders and north of there are over 7,500 square feet, with some lots much larger. Under Recode, the entire Adair neighborhood gets forced into RN-2, allowing 5,000-square-foot lots.

Adair is not alone. Other small-lot neighborhoods, like Lincoln Park, Parkridge, Westview and Pond Gap, might likewise be at risk. Neighborhoods must scrutinize Map 4 (when released) to test the earlier “zone-neutral” assumption.

Redevelopment underway in East Nashville.

Are we creating a tear-down incentive? The proposed smaller minimum lot size could thus incentivize demolition of existing affordable homes (charming ones at that), changing the neighborhoods’ character, much like the “tall skinnies” being built in Nashville.

Would that happen here? Be realistic (and a bit cynical): If there is a buck to be made, someone will figure out a way to do it.

Suggested text change. Neighborhood voices, like those of former council member Carlene Malone and Community Forum chair Larry Silverstein have urged adding an intermediate zone, which protects those existing neighborhoods with smaller lot sizes.

They have suggested several options:

Add a new zoning district between RN-1 and RN-2, with lots around 7,500 square feet for a single-family home. Or,

Increase the RN-2 zoning district minimum lot size to 7,000 square feet for single-family dwellings as proposed in Recode Draft 1. Or,

Designate all existing R-1 neighborhoods as RN-1, even if nonconforming. That would leave the burden of changing the zoning to the property owners and neighborhood groups using the normal planning process, including sector plans, one-year plans and rezoning.

Conclusion. As a community we must consider what direction a new zoning code should take us. Secret social planning and good intentions, in the guise of cleaning up the so-called “dated” existing law, can create more problems than they solve. The ordinance language, and the permitted uses and governing standards, will be easy enough to craft once we decide on our objectives.

We welcome an open discussion of the policy decisions embedded in Recode. To date, there has been little explanation as to why so many properties are facing different zoning than they have under the existing law.

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