Construction workers build tiers into the side of Chapman Ridge in South Knoxville, constructing foundations for the 86-townhouse student housing complex Knox Ridge in November 2015. Photo by Clay Duda.

How Knox’s Controversial Ridgetop Guidelines Are Put to Use—And When They’re Not

In Cover Stories, News by Clay Dudaleave a COMMENT

The views from Chapman Ridge in South Knoxville are breathtaking, at least looking out from the top. From the elevated western crest, the majestic allure of East Tennessee’s rolling hills spreads out like ripples in the ocean. The vibrant reds, yellows, and golden hues of fall waiver toward the pale cascade of the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance.

To the northwest, glimpses of the University of Tennessee campus and Fort Sanders peek through a valley of trees over the Tennessee River. Directly to the east lies the rooftops of dozens of apartments and a beacon of a sky-blue water tower perched further down the same ridge.

Soon, this expanse will be open to more UT and other students, provided they rent a room from one of the dozens of communal townhomes being carved into the hillside below. Dust has been swirling along this cavernous stretch of Cherokee Trail since April when excavation work started on Knox Ridge, an ambitious cluster of high-end student dwellings being tiered into existence on the steep terrain.

Plans for the property call for a short trail around the homes leading up to the ridgeline’s knobby high spot, soon to include a fire pit and possibly some barbecues where youngins can kick back and enjoy the high-life. A portion of the crest has been completely clear-cut of trees and reseeded to create a grassy knoll for doggies and other animals. It’s just the sort of prominent section of the crown that could have potentially been protected under development guidelines that took effect in 2012. But it wasn’t.

A ridgeline along Chapman Ridge was clear-cut to make a grassy area for pets at the Knox Ridge townhomes, set to open to students in the fall of 2016. Photo by Clay Duda.

A ridgeline along Chapman Ridge clear-cut to make a grassy area for pets at the Knox Ridge townhomes.

In part, it was the area’s natural beauty and the property’s unique layout that led Chicago-based Strategic Holdings, LLC to develop the lot, yet it seems many of the local guidelines designed to protect steep hillsides and help preserve such attractive views were not factored in when development plans were reviewed by local officials, a check of records reveals.

As construction kicked up over the summer on these townhouses, South Knoxville resident and former UT professor Mike Kaplan quickly took notice. He says he was surprised to see work on a steep slope like Chapman Ridge given the guidelines set out by the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan, or HRPP, a controversial document developed over several years that he figured would redirect such development, or at least help preserve the natural features that have given the area so much charm. 

“Before any of that stuff was built along Cherokee Trail, the whole road looked like the Smoky Mountains National Park. It was all old-growth woods, and it was just stunningly beautiful,” he recalls. “It’s astonishing to this day and age that people are still doing stuff like this, and I guess the question is, if this could take over South Knox, could it happen in other neighborhoods?”

While Strategic Holdings has adhered to regulations laid out by building officials, this mountainous lot just east of Alcoa Highway is exactly the type of property the HRPP was designed to protect and regulate; a steep-sloping hillside with prominent features prone to issues of runoff and erosion. But even after local governments spent nearly $400,000 and thousands of hours in staff time to develop those guidelines, in many parts of the county they are routinely overruled, discarded, or not cited at all. In unincorporated Knox County, it’s not a requirement that they are put to use despite the HRPP being adopted as part of the county’s general plan, and Knox Ridge just makes it into the county line.

Ironically, these new townhomes are being constructed on the same ridgeline as the water tower that triggered the plan in the first place. In 2008, after the Knoxville Utilities Board constructed that sky-blue, 180-foot water tower just down the road (you know, the one that’s still visible today from many parts of town), public outcry was so fierce that the Knoxville City Council and Knox County Commission called for the formation of a task force to hone hillside development standards, research best practices, and come up with a plan to guide these high-reaching construction projects.

Three years and 90-some-odd meetings later, the roughly 30-person task force finalized the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan, a thick booklet of guidelines that took heat from folks on all sides of the issues it was geared to address, mostly related to stormwater runoff and erosion, development standards, and the preservation of the county’s natural beauty. It was eventually adopted separately by the City Council in late 2011 and County Commission (with one big caveat) in January 2012, but has never been fully implemented.

Now, four years out, it’s worth looking back at the principles laid out in the HRPP to see how it has been put to work so far, the impact it is having on development, and if there is a need to do more to protect the natural environs that Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero says are critical for the region to develop into a destination for outdoor enthusiasts. But there’s more than just outdoor sports and tourism at stake. There’s the intrinsic value of unspoiled land and our quality of life, issues of pollution from runoff and erosion, deforestation and the potential implications of climate change, the delicate balance between property rights and government regulations, the influence of the local business community on politics, and fundamental differences between Rogero’s activist vision of government and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett’s anti-government philosophy—all conflicts and values wrapped up in this thick-bound book of standards and how they’re applied.

A 180-foot water tower constructed in 2008 triggered a public outcry so intense the Knox County Commission and Knoxville City Council called for the formation of a task force to research and develop ridgetop construction guidelines. Photo by Clay Duda.

EARTH MOVERS

When building on the side of a mountain, geography dictates a lot of decisions, developer Brian Gianone explains.

“Normally it would take us 10 months to do a project this size, but we gave ourselves 16-18 months because of all the earth works involved,” says Gianone, a partner in the firm developing Knox Ridge. “We’re basically carving into the side of the mountain and building tiers.”

Construction workers back-fill a series of tiers which will form the foundation for townhouses at Knox Ridge in South Knoxville. Photo by Clay Duda.

Construction workers back-fill a series of tiers which will form the foundation for townhouses at Knox Ridge.

Moving all of that earth takes time. Excavation work started in April and isn’t expected to wrap until mid-December, then utilities start going in. When the ribbon is finally cut in August 2016 (provided things stay on schedule), the facility will boast some living attractions not available at other student housings in Knoxville, he says, including a 450-foot-long man-made lazy river, a giant T-shaped hot tub that can hold up to 40 people, and a massive pool deck with a 700-800 person capacity. In all, it’s about a $22 million investment.

Gianone’s firm, Strategic Holdings, LLC, a division of Oculus Development out of Chicago, already has similar housing complexes in Athens, Ga. and Gainesville, Fla., other college towns where it rents out units by the room to students. The townhouses in Knoxville, 86 in all, will have a total 371 bedrooms, four or five in each 2,700-square-foot unit, with rents starting at $579 a month for a fully furnished room. A leasing office is already open in the University Commons shopping center.

The company has built its business on this style of townhome, a design that comes in handy when building on such steep, challenging terrain.

“Because we’re doing townhomes, what we need for footings is much smaller [than it would be for apartments], and we can use our homes to follow the natural undulation of the land,” he says. “It helps preserve some of the natural beauty of the site and of Knoxville, which is always our intent on any project.”

No townhouses are going on the crown of the ridge, but a portion of it has been cleared for a common area, most likely to be set aside for dog walks or other pets, Gianone says. The houses themselves will be constructed on a series of tiers held back by retaining walls along the slope’s steep northern face. 

To be clear, according to public records, Strategic Holdings has complied with all regulations and requirements set out by the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission, which reviewed development plans, and Knox County building officials, who have jurisdiction over the project after construction starts. Although some guidelines already on the books, included in the HRPP, could have potentially shaped the development and conserved a portion of forested land along the ridgeline, they were not applied or cited, records show. While situated close to downtown Knoxville, the Knox Ridge property lies in unincorporated Knox County, not within Knoxville city limits.

The land was last rezoned in 2006, years before work started on the HRPP. In 2013, former owners Gary and Janice Hines, of Knoxville, gained approval from the MPC for a similar-style housing development through a use on review hearing, a necessary step to approve initial development plans. Not long after, Hines sold the lot to Strategic Holdings for $1.03 million. Gianone says they chose to stick with the same general layout to help “fast-track” construction, earning the okay from MPC on its updated plans during a June 12, 2014 use on review hearing.

Because the allowed density for the property was set when it was rezoned in 2006, MPC planner Tom Brechko says the application of the HRPP was limited in this case, and it stops short of clearly outlining what should or shouldn’t be protected.

“A plan is not a regulation. There aren’t standards or regulations within the zoning or subdivision regulations that state, ‘if there is this, then you can’t touch it,’ or anything like that,” Brechko says. “There are recommendations we can make to encourage developers to lay out their design to reduce impacts, and those things are taken into consideration.”

No one spoke against Strategic Holdings’ plans for the property, which passed the Planning Commission unanimously, but several people did write letters or speak out in 2013 when the Hines first proposed student housing there. Most of those concerns centered on traffic and unsafe conditions along the winding twists and turns of Cherokee Trail, and the current developer agreed to put money toward several improvements to be carried out by the city of Knoxville as part of the deal. (The roads fall inside the city limits, the Knox Ridge property does not.) One person expressed disdain for how the constructor of the Woodlands, a neighboring student apartment complex, clear-cut a section of the ridgeline, but never mentioned the HRPP. In both cases, the hillside plan was not discussed or cited on staff reports or during Planning Commission meetings.

In general, planners at the MPC cite the HRPP when considering applications to change the use of a property (for example, reclassifying a lot from agricultural to planned residential, or any number of changes), usually by rezoning the property or, at times, adjusting a sector plan to allow it to be rezoned for an intended use. Sector plans are guiding documents that outline what types of uses should be allowed in different areas of the city and county—such as keeping industrial developments from cropping up in the middle of neighborhoods or clustering commercial corridors—and may be a necessary step to a rezone depending on the intended use and location of a property. Far less often is the HRPP used to fine-tune development or establish conservation areas during more common use on review hearings, the next step to developing a property, when the Planning Commission reviews specific site plans and layouts for a property—although it could be.

Construction workers build tiers into the side of Chapman Ridge in South Knoxville, constructing foundations for the 86-townhouse student housing complex Knox Ridge in November 2015. Photo by Clay Duda.

DUELING DOCUMENTS

The hillside plan was never designed to stop development, but to establish clear parameters, the do’s and don’ts, and to lay out a path for smart growth and planning on land with more than a 15 percent slope, or terrain that rises 15 feet or more over a 100-foot span. The 96-page document touches on dozens of specific recommendations, from reducing building setbacks and road widths in order to minimize disturbance areas, to requiring reforestation plans and other steps aimed at reducing issues of runoff and erosion. It allows planners to grant increased densities up to 10 percent on areas suitable for development within steep-sloped properties, provided that on a case-by-case basis some unspoiled portions are placed under protective easements and opened to the public.

It also establishes what is known as the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Area, or HRPA, a designation covering about 33 percent of land in the city of Knoxville and Knox County with slopes greater than 15 percent—lands, in theory, subject to the provisions of the HRPP. Recommendations vary based on the slope of a property, with increasing limitations the steeper the grade.


Knox County’s Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Areas:

Mapping: Clay Duda/Municipal boundaries: 2010 U.S. Census/HRPA boundaries: Knoxville-Knox County MPC

Yet, depending on where you are in the county, the guidelines themselves hold different weight.

In December 2011 and January 2012, the Knoxville City Council and Knox County Commission, respectively, reviewed and adopted near identical versions of the HRPP, but with one key difference. At the insistence of then-County Commissioner Richard Briggs (now a state senator), an amendment was added to the county’s version—later dubbed the Briggs Amendment—that gutted much of its legal and regulatory authority. The preface clearly states that the document is solely “advisory in nature” and constitutes “non-binding recommendations” that may be considered for future developments on steep slopes, meaning the county can use it, or not, for future construction projects and rezones.

Knoxville attorney Steve Wise, who specializes in real estate law, says the amendment could help Knox County mount a legal defense if ever taken to court over its application of the HRPP, but it’s impossible to predict how legal proceedings would play out.

“In the county, the hillside plan is only a recommendation. That’s the same in the city also, but in the city it is binding, [meaning] it has to be followed,” says MPC Director Gerald Green, who took over that post in July. “In the county it’s not mandatory. It’s just one of the factors we consider, and there’s no mandate that the MPC or legislative bodies take action based on the slope of a property.”

The language of the Briggs Amendment is so stark, in fact, that County Mayor Tim Burchett now says it’s his understanding that it never passed into law. Meaning, spokesman Michael Grider clarifies, that it had no legal standing even though the amended version was adopted as part of the general plan by the County Commission with a 7-3-1 vote on its first reading in November 2011. Then-Commissioner Tony Norman, who co-chaired the HRPP task force, voted against passing the amended version, along with Sam McKenzie and Amy Broyles. Commissioner Dave Wright abstained.

“It’s a good example of a well-intentioned effort by good folks that became something that’s going to end up in a notebook on the shelf,” Burchett says.

Briggs says the amendment was meant to place restrictions on the HRPP, but more importantly to provide folks with a means to appeal any decision made under those guidelines to a board of elected officials, in this case the County Commission.

“The intent was to strip it of regulatory powers because the people using it [at MPC] weren’t elected officials,” Briggs says, noting that if the present guidelines had been in place in years past, some prominent Knox-area developments could never have come into existence, such as the City County building downtown, the Sequoyah Hills neighborhood, or the former Baptist Hospital site along the South Waterfront.

He continues: “[The amendment] really dealt with not putting so many restrictions that the Knox County Commission couldn’t permit a good plan to go forward, or if it was a bad fit that we couldn’t oppose it.”

While the county’s adopted version says the HRPP is not binding, it’s really not quite that simple. If MPC staffers make recommendations based on the HRPP, and those recommendations earn approval from the Planning Commission and, in some cases as necessary, the County Commission, then they do become binding conditions for developing a piece of land anywhere in the county, Green says, providing an avenue for those regulations to be enforced in unincorporated Knox County.

Knoxville City Council added no such qualifiers in its adoption of the HRPP, and Mayor Madeline Rogero says it’s her understanding and expectation that those guidelines are applied to all developments on hillsides within city limits.

“They are legal, guiding documents and not just suggestions,” Rogero says. “City Council adopted those plans unanimously … and it’s my understanding that they’re being followed and implemented.”

However, MPC records show that the HRPP is not consistently referenced when rezones of hilly properties are handled by the MPC. Of 29 rezoning applications since 2012 that could have fallen under the umbrella of the HRPP, those guidelines were cited only 59 percent of the time, in 17 cases.

The majority of those cases, 20 of the 29, were properties in unincorporated areas of Knox County, where the vast majority of undeveloped hillsides remain. Mayor Burchett asserts those guidelines have no legal weight in his realm, but records show that on at least five occasions provisions in the HRPP were used to scale back or place restrictions on developments in the county, earning the approval of County Commission each time.

Of the nine hilly rezones inside the city of Knoxville, the HRPP was referenced in just three cases ; Once awarding a density bonus, another noting the property complied with the guidelines, and a third time with recommendations from the Planning Commission for a density higher than what the HRPP would allow, but City Council later voted that one down.

If it’s not evident, these guidelines are fairly complex, creating a subjective web of pseudo regulations that must be evaluated and weighed on a case-by-case basis, balancing the merits and geography of each individual construction site and project. It’s been mired in controversy from its inception, an obvious factor in it faltering part-way through being fully implemented and leading to the county’s stripped-down version.

Loose rock and dirt cover the side of Chapman Ridge in South Knoxville as construstion workers back-fill tiers in November 2015 for a future student housing development. Photo by Clay Duda.

FOR AND AGAINST

The battle to get something (anything?) on the books after years of work and considerable expense grew fierce in 2011 as business groups and property right proponents continued to decry the HRPP as government intrusion that would make it too costly for developers to build on hillsides. Environmentalists and some residents maintained that it would help protect the region’s scenic beauty and some sloppy construction practices that had contributed to mudslides and erosion onto neighboring lots.

The Knoxville Chamber, led by President Michael Edwards, was in staunch opposition, releasing a hail-Mary “Plan B” in September 2011. Through a spokeswoman, Edwards declined to comment for this story, but letters sent to the city and county at the time outline his concerns.

“The MPC Plan goes too far on hillside regulation, proposing that almost 40% [33 percent, to be exact] of Knox County be designated as a restricted area,” Edwards wrote in a Sept. 23, 2011, letter, referring to a provision of the HRPP that designated land with more than a 15 percent slope be labeled as a Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Area. “On the other hand, the MPC Plan does not go far enough in ridgetop protection. … [It] does not provide any protection for the scenic/visual aspects of ridgetop areas.”

So the Chamber “assembled an advisory group of professionals” and crafted an alternative plan, which called for a clear designation of ridgetop areas to be protected, the adoption of codes and regulations for its enforcement (rather than it being applied during rezoning or use on review proceedings), and increasing the threshold for lands included in the HRPP from 15 percent to 30 percent slopes, thus cutting down on the volume of land with a protected status, among other things. However, the plan never garnered wide-spread political support and died on the vine.

Even today, a hillside in northwest Knoxville cited by MPC for its high potential for erosion and land-slides sits mostly barren, dotted with sprouts of trees and other small vegetation. The HRPP was designed, in part, to address such issues of erosion and runoff. Photo by Clay Duda.

Even today, a hillside in northwest Knoxville cited by MPC for its high potential for erosion and land-slides sits mostly barren, dotted with sprouts of trees and other small vegetation.

Engineer Gary Norvell, who has worked on developments in East Tennessee for more than 40 years, says some additional clarification would prove helpful even today, specifically codifying recommendations in the HRPP into the city and county’s building code so potential developers know what they’re in for, a provision in the HRPP that has never been fulfilled.

“When someone wants to develop a piece of property, they have to put a budget together, a prospectus, and they need to know going in what to expect, or what they’re going to be required to do,” Norvell says. “There are so many things [in the HRPP] that are just general guidelines, you never know if it’s going to apply to this specific case or not. Having it in an ordinance makes it official and tells you exactly what will happen, opposed to something they use as guidelines. It’s subjective versus objective.”

Norvell served as a member of the task force that developed the HRPP, but resigned from his position in early 2011 with a letter citing a number of concerns. Those included allegations that his role on the task force was marginalized as MPC staff mostly developed and wrote the guidelines without consensus from other members, that too many people were involved to ever come to complete agreement on many issues, that the plan was misrepresented as being backed by developers, and that the draft document at the time contained erroneous information.

There is some economic value in preserving ridgelines and other distinguishable natural features, according to research by then-UT doctoral student Matthew Chadourne. Following the formation of the task force, Chadourne developed an analysis to quantify how valuable unspoiled views of ridges and hillsides were for property values in Knoxville and Knox County, taking into account market conditions before and during the economic recession.

“The results show that forest views add significant value to homes during both periods (during a housing boom and during a recession). However, the amenity value added to houses decreased 13 percent from the boom period to the recession period, implying that forest views decrease in value when there is an economic recession,” the study reads.

Chadourne calculates that each acre of forested land that can be seen from a given property adds as much as $100 to its value, while views of barren or scrubland can reduce home values as much as $112 per acre, especially during an economic downturn. According to a separate report from American Forests, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, in 2001 between 50 and 60 percent of all forested land in Knox County was located on hillsides and ridgetops.

“I think that one of the things Knoxville has going for it is the beauty of our area, and it doesn’t take too much destruction along a ridgeline for people to realize that it’s ugly, and it’s unrecoverable,” says Lisa Starbuck, a former task force member who serves as vice president of Scenic Knoxville. “I do feel it (the HRPP) was successful, but I think it would be worthwhile to reassemble a committee and study what has happened since the plan was passed; Did we go far enough? How has it worked in practice? Are there adjustments we can make to make it better?”

Knoxville Mayor Rogero says she plans to have a talk soon with MPC head Gerald Green about what, if anything, should be done to further the HRPP and ridgetop protections. But, she says, that will have to be prioritized based on staffing and other demands from MPC, one of the most pressing being issues with the city’s corridor overlay to help promote higher density developments.

“We have been incorporating those regulations into our subdivision regulations, and there are other things we have done more on the conservation side, like working with Legacy Parks on the Urban Wilderness to preserve that land, and there’s about 100 acres back behind South Doyle Middle School that the Pat Wood family donated to Legacy Parks that is now being preserved,” Rogero says. “I think if that whole issue came up again today there would be a different response, at least on the city side, from the community because there’s a strong appreciation in the value of the Urban Wilderness and other areas for those that live here and as an economic strategy. We’re becoming a mecca for outdoor recreation, and that’s a positive thing.”

County Mayor Tim Burchett says he’s still not sure there ever was an issue that needed to be addressed to start with, and he doesn’t see a need to look back at the HRPP or do more in the future.

“I’m a property rights person,” Burchett says. “The government does a good job of going in and creating a problem where there is no problem, then stepping back and saying, ‘look at all this great work we’ve done.’ I just don’t see a need for it.”

All photos by Clay Duda.

Construction workers build tiers into the side of Chapman Ridge in South Knoxville, constructing foundations for the 86-townhouse student housing complex Knox Ridge in November 2015. Photo by Clay Duda.

Clay Duda

Former Mercury staff reporter Clay Duda has covered gangs in New York, housing busts in Atlanta, and wildfires in Northern California. And lots of stuff about Knoxville.

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