Imagine yourself somewhere, anywhere in Knox County. Look up from your hand-held device for a moment and regard the landscape around you. What do you see? Buildings, probably, as well as roads, billboards, pavement, maybe lawns and ornamental plantings. From many, if not most, locations you would likely also see a green-clad ridge. Now imagine that ridge denuded of its trees, large areas of bare soil persisting and eroding year after year, tall buildings perched on top and jutting from the steep slopes.
Would you feel like you’ve lost something of value? What? Sadly, this exercise doesn’t require a vivid imagination. You can live that experience from many places today in our fair city and county.
The Ridge and Hilltop Protection Plan adopted by both local governments a few years ago was intended to address the problems associated with certain kinds of development on our high points, but the non-binding nature of the plan calls its effectiveness into question.
The narrow ridges and valleys that trend northeast to southwest have become a defining characteristic of this region. Development naturally started in the more accessible valleys, leaving the ridges as highly visible bands of forest. While the built environment can and should be pleasing to the eye, patches of green within the urban landscape increase property values and quality of life. Our unique network of linear green spaces adds beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities as well as wildlife habitat. On the other hand, the very nature of those steep higher elevations makes them more vulnerable to deforestation, excessive grading, and visually obtrusive development. Several developments in recent years had raised concerns about damage to the local scenery, and when KUB erected a water tower rising 180 feet above Chapman Ridge across the river from downtown, the public outcry was sufficient to spur the creation of a joint city-county task force to study the issue and make recommendations.
The task force began frequent meetings in 2008, and was comprised of developers, landscape architects, engineers, foresters, lawyers, conservationists, and city and county officials. The Metropolitan Planning Commission facilitated the process and produced the written plan, which can be accessed from their website (knoxmpc.org). The task force looked at ordinances and guidelines that other Southeastern cities with ridges and mountains had created to limit disturbance in these vulnerable areas while balancing conservation and development interests. Common elements of these ordinances were narrower road standards and reduced building setbacks to lessen the amount of slope that had to be cut away, as well as restrictions on building and utility structure heights to keep them below the average height of the tree canopy. Hundreds of local citizens attended public meetings in 2009 to learn about the task force’s work and to express their opinions. There was overwhelming support for conserving the natural character of hillsides and ridges as well as the rights of private property owners.
The plan that was eventually adopted focuses on residential construction since that is the most common type of development on steep slopes. Development guidelines focus on adapting structures to the terrain and using construction materials and colors that blend with the surroundings. Tree preservation is encouraged with the recommendation that at least 85 percent of trees within 100 feet of a ridge top be kept in place. Building heights would be limited to 35 feet, a typical three-story building. Principles are proposed for making utility structures less obtrusive, such as using ground-mounted water tanks instead of towers, tucking them into hollows instead of ridge crests, painting them in earth tones, and keeping the surrounding trees to camouflage them.
The plan also suggests several mechanisms for creating natural areas and ridge conservation corridors by giving developers economic incentives, appealing to private and corporate donors, and encouraging public purchase of land with low development potential. Forested ridges could be an excellent addition to our greenway system that is already one of the most extensive in the state, but that is currently almost exclusively in valleys.
An analysis of the consequences of implementing the plan concluded that, even with the proposed limits on where and how development could proceed, there is ample opportunity to accommodate growth in Knoxville and Knox County. Open space created by adherence to the plan would increase property values, especially for sites adjacent to parks and trails. Public health and safety would be improved as air pollution, water pollution, and the risks of landslides are reduced. Species richness is highest on the ridges, so there would be ecological benefits.
The Ridge and Hilltop Protection Plan was created during the Great Recession when development pressure was at its lowest in many years, but even then there was resistance to anything that would limit what could be done on a parcel of land. Unlike Brentwood in Tennessee, Georgia’s Fulton County, and Asheville, N.C., which have enacted ordinances to protect the value of their ridges and mountaintops, our plan is advisory but not regulatory in its effect, as clarified by an amendment inserted by Knox County commissioners. The plan is used by MPC staff to evaluate development proposals and make recommendations to MPC, City Council, and County Commission, who ideally will follow recommendations that adhere to the plan. The political reality, though, is that private financial interests can trump the public welfare.
As the economy continues to recover and the pace of development accelerates, it remains to be seen how well developers and local government will follow the plan’s recommendations. In the absence of regulation, citizens advocating for our ridges might be the best assurance that all the hard work that went into the Ridge and Hilltop Protection Plan will make a difference. The plan tells them how to protect this resource. We might need to tell them why.
Updated: This revised version clarifies how the plan is used by MPC in its recommendations to City Council and County Commission, who in turn approve or deny requests for zoning changes. The previous headline implied builders could decide by themselves whether to follow the plan’s guidelines. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
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