Still time to make Recode the best it can be

Nick Della VolpeOur Town Leaders

The second round of Knoxville City Council’s clean-up-messy-Recode draft No. 5 extended over nine hours on May 30. The work session lasted till after midnight … longer than many in the audience lasted, including the ancient above-signed whose brain fizzled and derrière sought refuge in a recliner.

Some topside take-aways (details must await further digestion of the edited draft):

  • A lot of time was spent editing the yet-again-revised draft, firmly establishing that the full planning commission sent this important zoning-law rework prematurely to council last December. Art Clancy quarterbacked the third-down quick kick off Knoxville-Knox County Planning’s desk.
  • The 2016 idea of redoing Knoxville’s “old” zoning laws morphed from its original mission of better organizing the patchwork-quilted sections of law and adding helpful tables and modern graphics to make it easier to navigate and understand, to an unstated or at least under-advertised social-engineering project.
  • No one asked or publicly answered the fundamental question of “where are we going” up front. Without a compass, it is hard to keep the ship on course. It’s also good to have a buoy or two over the submerged rock piles.
  • Unfortunately, the Chicago Recode consultant, Camiros, recycled “stuff” from their word processor from other jurisdictions’ zoning laws they had worked on, rather than using Knoxville’s hammered-out lessons from past litigation and council battles where different sides of the public interest were debated. “Precedent” is learned wisdom, refined general rules that are helpful when one tries to apply them to a specific sticky situation.
  • However we got here, city council has finally realized that this massive ordinance requires line-by-line scrutiny and editing. Every word of the zoning law is important. Cross-referencing Article 2 definitions with standards and dimension limitations in other articles is needed to understand later permissions granted and setting the limits and rules of engagement. We need to avoid unintended consequences or needless litigation from a carelessly cobbled law.
  • Yes, some change is needed. But no one wants Knoxville to encourage the wrong kind of growth or disrupt neighborhood peace and calm. Yet some social goals – like 90-foot high rises near residential housing, misplaced addiction-treatment centers, too many cars or disruption from burgeoning but unregulated home businesses and backyard ADUs – are controversial. They raise eyebrows and neighborhood hackles. It takes a balancing act.
  • This council is charged with making those policy decisions (at least until the next election). Baby steps may be better than a dive off a high cliff.
  • It’s not an easy task. We want controlled growth and sound redevelopment and reuse of older buildings. One must balance developer and Realtor growth goals with homeowner investment and community expectations.
  • Audience input from zoning guru Carlene Malone and Community Forum president Larry Silverstein helped keep important issues from being passed over without careful consideration of the downside.
  • Likewise, Amy Nolan spoke for the Knoxville Chamber and Jennifer Roche represented the Knoxville Area Association of Realtors. They argued the pro-development position.
  • Frustrated at times, planning director Gerald Green has publicly opined in TV interviews, “Everyone wants progress, but no one wants change.” The rub is, what exactly is “progress,” and who gets to define it? The government? The planners? Or the citizens who live here? Not an easy task.

There will be a good month or so between this newly edited draft (5+), soon to be available online on the Recode website, and a vote by council to adopt, edit or vote down the draft. According to Mayor Madeline Rogero, the next council Recode session will be set for July (16 or 30) or August (5 or 12).

In the interim, council members were encouraged to meet one-on-one with Gerald Green to express their remaining questions and concerns. Efficient? Yes. Transparent? Hmm. Presumably suggestions for more changes will be forthcoming from that effort, and publicly aired.

Conclusion. This process is not over. Changes can still be made during the first and second reading of Recode at council meetings.

Continued caution is warranted. A wise man once said: “No man’s life or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” Be sure your neighborhood stays actively engaged, and talk to your council person. Roll up your sleeves. Let’s get this thing the best it can be.

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