‘Zoning angels’ hover over one-year plans

Nick Della VolpeFountain City, Inside 640, On the Grow

While you were sleeping, your neighborhood basked quietly under the protection of your better angels. I’m talking about zoning bird dogs Carlene Malone, Jamie Rowe and Charlotte Davis, who have been wading through the proposed North, East and Central City 1-year plans currently under review by the planners, and who participated at the Knox Planning meeting Feb. 27 at the Washington Pike Methodist Church.


These Fountain City women do not shy away from the front-end drudge work of wading through planning websites and raising community-interest zoning concerns. Oh yeah, I was there too (but, alas, there are no boy angels).

Like most such off-site community planning meetings, attendance was low. Folks usually don’t notice such dry plans, at least until later, when the stuff hits the fan. That’s often too late.

Background. One-year plans form the basis for all zoning in Knoxville under the city charter. Those plans translate broader zoning trends and individual requested zone changes onto city section maps (there are six sections), which post the zones (and hence permitted or probable uses) on a lot-by-lot basis. The current 2020 plan is undergoing public review before formal action by Knox Planning in March and later presentation to city council for adoption. Now is the time for citizen input.

Citizens need to stay vigilant. Changes in the one-year plan can work their way into timber, steel and concrete sprouting up in your neighborhood. As one speaker said, “This is where the rubber meets the road.” Obviously, in zoning, the basic goal is to keep like things together and not conflict with other existing uses. But we all know, governmental “visioning” can affect this.

Meeting issues. Two things stood out to me on Thursday evening.

First. Somehow, 20 pages of existing text, spelling out “Development Policy” standards, were being omitted from the 2020 draft for the North and East city sectors under review. Those were in Chapter 3 of the 2019 one-year plan, found here. Those provisions help decide what can be built in different zones. Important stuff. If a bad proposal gets approved, this is one of the tools you could point to in your challenge at MPC, city council, or even in court (if you fail below).

Without a yardstick, there is no way to measure. This was clearly raised by our zoning angels.

One concern was that this express policy omission might presage a grab for non-reviewable or discretionary power. Turns out, though, the planners dropped the Chapter 3 Development Policy text because they hoped to update and publish it separately later, or as a part of revised sector plans. Problem: that benign motive could leave a standardless gap … until that separate adoption was later realized. Prudence demands that the policy be left in place until the hoped-for substitute is completed.

Second: The planners had written-in a 90-day minimum postponement for any requested deferral of a proposed plan change. So what? The danger is that a longer required delay poses an economic hazard to a developer – he might miss the dry weather start of his project or cause his bank to raise financing concerns. That leads to needless postponement resistance. Not good.

Everyone benefits if neighborhoods and developers can agree to a short pause to work out objections to aspects of the project. A short delay to “talk it out” is usually preferred by city council, since it can produce a win-win outcome. That’s better than having “Solomon” threatening to cut the baby in half!

Conclusion. Be proactive. You or your neighborhood should review the proposed one-year plan changes before they are adopted into law. They are, after all, the legal basis for all zoning in Knoxville. At a minimum, check out the color-coded maps which show the zones ascribed to each lot in your area.

While you are at it, give a shout out to the zoning angels.

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

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