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Knox Growth Planning is Full of Fallacies

by Joe Sullivan

The divinations of the Knox County Growth Policy Coordinating Committee are becoming at least as convoluted as its unwieldy name suggests. If the committee were just engaged in some sort of abstract planning exercise that might be well and good.

Pursuant to a 1998 state law, however, the committee has a pivotal role in designating how much land outside of Knoxville's present city limits gets earmarked for annexation by the city over the next 20 years. Unenviably, the committee is bound—or put in a bind—by the dictates of that statute to come up with recommendations by year end that then must run a gauntlet between a city claim that would more than double its 97 square miles of existing turf and a County Commission majority that's opposed to any further annexation.

If city and/or county governments don't approve the committee's recommendations, then a three-judge panel would decide how to allocate Knox County's 526 square miles of total land area into each of the three categories prescribed by the dictatorial state law. These are: (1) urban growth boundaries over which the city would hold sway; (2) planned growth areas outside the city; and (3) rural areas in which development would be constrained.

As a point of departure, the 12-member coordinating committee (itself a creature of state law) devoted two lengthy sessions earlier this week trying to define the first of these three categories. But after spinning its wheels for hours on abstruse methodologies for projecting population growth and densities, along with other arcane planning criteria, the only thing the committee managed to conclude was that the city of Knoxville would need space for 197,393 residents in 2020, up from an estimated 172,500 presently.

And how did the committee arrive at this projection which will, in turn, provide the basis for determining how much land is needed to house 25,000 in population growth? Well, it took projections furnished by UT's Center for Business and Economic Research that assumed Knox County's population would grow to 432,866 in 2020 from 380,000 presently and further assumed that the city's population would grow proportionately. But what's the basis for assuming that the city will, or should, grow proportionately?

"UT arbitrarily assumed that in 2020 the city would have the same percentage of the county's population as in 1998," explains Norm Whitaker, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Committee. MPC's own population projections differ markedly from UT's, but the state Legislature in its wisdom mandated that the coordinating committee work "in conjunction" with UT.

So as funny a number as the UT projection may be, the committee adopted it with Mayor Victor Ashe stating that, "I will reluctantly vote for this even though I think the city's population will be far in excess of that even if the city doesn't expand one square inch." If the committee had been hanging on Ashe's every word, perhaps it could have spared itself—and the community—a lot of grief by simply proclaiming that the city's need for growth could be satisfied from within its present limits.

But other MPC analyses indicate that only about one-quarter of the 25,000 population growth can be accommodated on the five square miles or so of vacant, unconstrained land identified within the city. Therefore, these MPC analyses, which the committee has yet to adopt, point to the need for granting the city on the order of 15 additional square miles of annexable land as an urban growth boundary. If and when the committee can agree on these criteria, it will then face the much more daunting task of selecting the land that will fall within this boundary.

Unlike prior city annexations which have targeted developed property, vacant and unconstrained are the watchwords for the land to be selected on which residents get the privilege of paying city taxes in order to be part of its capriciously ordained growth. Big farms would seem ideal candidates, and some would say that tax farms are exactly what the city needs to help cover the cost of its new convention center and other ambitious undertakings. But Ashe himself acknowledges that property tax revenues from annexed residential property are "about a wash" against the cost of providing city service.

It's doubtful whether cutting the city's quest for more than 100 square miles of growth room back to around 15 square miles will kindle any chance for County Commission approval of the committee's recommended growth plan. A commission majority led by Frank Leuthold appears to have drawn a line in the sand against assenting to any encroachment by the city. But County Executive Tommy Schumpert continues to push for compromise and is also trying to justify a minimal encroachment in case the matter ends up before a judicial panel.

In the course of doing so, Schumpert has shelled out close to $90,000 to consulting firms based in Memphis and Bethesda, Md., for studies that adhere to state-prescribed planning methodologies (which the County Commission majority has almost defied). A report prepared by Memphis-based ETI Corp. concludes that only three square miles are needed for the city's urban growth boundary, that 55 square miles are needed for development in the county's planned growth area and that 135 square miles of county land should be designated as rural in order to deter urban sprawl.

An emerging focus on constraining sprawl is the one redeeming facet of the coordinating committee's processes to date. "We need to recommend as much population density in the urban and planned growth areas as we can. Then we can look at the rural areas and people's desire that growth be contained," Schumpert told the committee. And he drew support from Farragut's respected representative, Robert Hill.

It remains to be seen, though, how far this initiative can go against the concerted opposition of developers and home builders. Their fear is that statutory constraints on development in rural areas would artificially drive up the price of land and thus the cost of houses in planned growth areas. And they are joined in their opposition to widespread rural designations by some potentially affected land owners who are fearful that their property could lose value. It's also unclear exactly what would be permitted in a rural area, who would decide on restrictions and how they would be enforced.

Given all the speciousness surrounding the committee's urban growth boundary assumptions, though, an effort to address the complexities of rural preservation can hardly come off any worse and just might do some lasting good.