Recode Knoxville: The vote that could change everything

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UPDATE: Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero said the proposed Recode Knoxville overhaul of Knoxville’s zoning ordinances is not ready for a vote today and City Council should consider staff recommendations this afternoon, according to her prepared remarks.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – City leaders are set to vote on a proposed zoning overhaul, known as Recode Knoxville, in a special called meeting Tuesday at 3 p.m. 

We’ve confirmed at least five on the city council members want to postpone a vote on the first reading on the more than 400-page ordinance. We won’t know what happens until it happens. 

What is Recode? 

Before we break down what Recode Knoxville could change, let’s first look at what zoning does.

RECODE KNOXVILLE: Look up your zoning

If you own your own home, you may not want to live next to a landfill, huge apartment complex, or a mall. Zoning determines what you can build and where you can build it. If Recode Knoxville passes, it will alter the zoning designation of every home and business in the city. 

The last comprehensive zoning ordinance passed in Knoxville was in 1963.

That year was the same year the Shields-Watkins Field became Neyland Stadium. Planning officials explain the zoning then was created to grow outer parts of the city and if left inner-Knoxville without enough housing, transportation, jobs, and shopping to keep up with a growing population. 

Data from the Boyd Center shows when Knox County grows, Knoxville grows. It has it that for every 10 people that move to the county, on average, about three of them come to the city.

By the end of 2019, Knox County is expected to grow by nearly 5,000 people. That’s 1,500 coming to Knoxville. That same math shows Knoxville will pick up 24,000 more people by 2040 and 45,000 more by 2016. Recode aims to create more density for a growing population and making areas of the city more walkable.

RELATED: Recode Knoxville website

Councilwoman Lauren Rider spent her Mother’s Day weekend pouring over the proposed zoning map. She wants to make sure property owners in her North Knoxville district to know how the proposal does or does not affect them. She wants to make sure neighborhoods in her district, like one zoned R1-A today that allows single-family houses and duplexes, are proposed to be zoned to something similar or the same. R1-A is set to become an RN-2, which actually only allows single-family homes, with duplexes only on special review. 

Rider also wants to make sure homeowners understand these changes are about what can be built if a property is sold or vacant.

“It’s about the future. So, if you have empty parcels, the zoning changes impact what you can do with that in the future,” she said. This is why she said it’s important to take the time to make sure no changes to abutting commercial zones could have a negative impact on people in her district. 

The Recode process

There have been a few dozen public meetings, five city council workshops, countless changes, and five drafts. There have been two years of discussion, but many city leaders are unsure about whether Tuesday the right time to vote. 

A report by Camiros, the Chicago-based consultant hired to help update Knoxville’s zoning laws, showed the city should strive toward a set of goals for growth, including: 

  • expand temporary uses that can occur on private property with more flexibility and a wide range of modern uses
  • change the minimum lot requirements in places where the current lot width is 75 feet to build a single-family home because it “doesn’t match current development patterns. 
  • open up opportunities or strengthen a neighborhood’s distinction 
  • zone residential areas from lowest to the highest range of intensities 
  • update home occupations to match modern jobs 
  • address accessory dwelling units
  • form comprehensive landscape requirements 
  • form exterior lighting standards 

What’s in Recode

– ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) are allowed in each residential zone. The most recent draft requires a certain lot size, required off-street parking and that the owner lives on the property. 

– Mixed-use zoning in commercial areas on Kingston Pike, Broadway, Chapman Highway, and Magnolia Avenue 

– Design standards for future housing, excluding single-family homes

– Design standards for commercial properties along corridors zoned CG-2, those not meeting standard considered non-conforming.

– Changes to working from home, including adding more modern occupations to list, limit how many people can work at home, allow work to go on in ADU 

– Hillside Protection Overlay Zoning Districts, which aim to protect steepers slopes by limiting density and percentage of grading on those properties. 

– No new mobile home parks in the city, but new mobile homes can still be placed in existing parks. 

For Major Roads

Recode allows mixed-use development along major corridors including Broadway, Kingston Pike, Magnolia Avenue, and Chapman Highway.

If you think of those major roadways today, you likely see a mostly commercial property. Recode would change many of those properties to CG-2 designated lots, meaning they can build residential or commercial, or both.

It allows developers to build five-story buildings in those zones. In nodes along the corridors, like the Broadway Shopping Center, for example, developers can build even higher. 

Those who support Recode believe it creates incentives for more development, by allow buildings to sit closer to the road and require fewer parking spots to be poured in some areas. The objective is to make room for more people while making the city more pedestrian-friendly. 

Gerald Green, Knoxville-Knox County Planning Executive Director, believes Recode is the key to unlock the city’s future.

To see these changes in action, he cited Happy Hollar as an example. He said Cumberland Avenue is another but specified the changed to the corridors would be much less intense than the development you see there. 

Green also said Recode is essential for viability. He said right now, with demand for brick and mortar stores in places like the Northgate shopping center, and makes our corridors more viable. He said the changes to what can be built there would both use existing infrastructure and create development. 

With the more flexible rules on what and where developers can build, there are also design standards. If an existing business is not up to code, Green explained, they’d be grandfathered in indefinitely and considered a legal, non-conforming use. 

Changes to traffic 

Recode calls for a 10% reduction in required parking spots in many proposed commercial zones, including those going to a CG-2 designation, and a 30% reduction in some that are a quarter-mile away from a bus stop.

Green believes it levels the playing field for those without a car while incentivizing development because there’s more space to build. Green also pointed out this is a reduction in the minimum amount of parking spaces, and a developer could go beyond if they wanted. 

“There are a lot of cities that don’t have as much required parking as we have had in the past and they get by and everything…it may impact your behaviors and where you go, or you choose to ride your bike or walk or take a bus, or uber. You change how you get there,” Councilwoman Rider said. 

Changes to neighborhoods

The only way to truly know how Recode could change your neighborhood is to go here and see where you’re currently zoned and where you’re going under the proposal.

Then, you should go here to see the comparison chart. It shows what’s allowed to be built now and what’s allowed if this ordinance passes. 

Back to ADUs. A local, who we will call Terrance for the purpose of maintaining her anonymity, is currently zoned in an area that allows her to build a garage, man cave or gym, called an “accessory structure”. It does not allow her to have the two-bedroom home, 22-steps away from her home, where she takes care of her 84-year-old mother. She built one anyway because she said her mother always asked to never be put into a nursing home.

“It gives me peace just to run over there and check on her. If it’s late at night and I see her light on, I’m across the driveway here,” Terrance said. 

Recode would bring her up to code. She supports giving homeowners around the city the option to take care of an aging relative. 

Many fear ADUs will double the density of the neighborhoods and streets. 

In a straw poll on ADUs at the April 8 workshop, Councilman Andrew Roberto spoke in favor of making ADUs for special use, rather than permitted everywhere. Meanwhile, Councilman George Wallace, Vice Mayor Finbarr Saunders, and Rider support ADUs as a permitted use. 

If Recode passes

In her State of the City address last month, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero called Recode a “living document” and said any “unintended consequences” could be dealt with, but also said she fully supports passing the ordinance.

“We cannot let our image of the perfect be the enemy of the practical and the possible,” she said. 

There is also an effort to keep the public stakeholder advisory committee, if Recode passes, to monitor any unforeseen impact of the zoning changes to business or homeowners. 

In the current draft, people who want to apply for an amendment can do so for no charge for one year following the passage of Recode. In addition, there is an effort among many city leaders to keep the Public Stakeholder Advisory Committee in place for two years to consider any amendments if there are any unforeseen negative impacts. 

Possible Impact 

Tim Hill is a developer with Hatcher-Hill Properties, LLC. Hill said he already sees demand for mixed-use developments in the Homberg Era. He calls the new zoning rules “a new era,” and added,  “I don’t want to be ‘that Scruffy City.’ I want to be a beautiful city that we appreciate all the natural assets that we have and I think this will just promote that.” 

Michael Stinson is proud of his home in the Holston Hills Community. “It’s quiet. It’s calm. My neighbors are great people. This is the kind of place I see myself having a family, settling down, making memories,” he said. He fears Recode Knoxville threatens it all.

He takes issues with ADUs and believes they should be allowed on a case-by-case basis, not on every residential lot in the city.

“What if it’s a husband and wife that’s living there while they’re trying to get their feet on the ground…you’re going to double the density of this region of the neighborhood,” he added. 

He also feels he isn’t completely sure about what Recode promises, and believes his questions haven’t been adequately answered. Another large concern is potential growth in his property tax bill.

“Is my property going to be upzoned or downzoned? If it’s upzoned, what’s going to happen as a result with my taxes, my property taxes. Are those taxes going to go up as a result? Because what i’m seeing, this is going to be a massive tax increase in the taxes for the citizens of Knoxville.” 

Green said that isn’t going to happen because of a zoning designation. The zoning designation may allow for more flexible development, creating an incentive to build, and ultimately increase a property’s value, Green explained, that would increase property taxes. 

Lee Hume doesn’t mind looking to the future, along our main corridors. He does mind fighting for the standards he currently has.

“If they want to do it then I say go for it. I have no problem with that. That wouldn’t hurt us at all. But, this wholesale, saying the old is totally bad, just totally get rid of it and bring something in that’s universal, it’s just a mistake,” he said. 

Hume lives in the West Hills Community. It’s zoned today as an R1-E, which only allows single-family houses. That’s pretty obvious when you look around the community. Under Recode, they’d switch to an RN-1, which does allow duplexes under special approval.

“We’ve got a strong community. We believe in it. People are attracted to West Hills because of the way it is and they buy into it and houses sell quickly here because people want to move here. All we want to do is keep what we have,” Hume added. 

Danny Kirby is a broker in West Knoxville. He said many business owners are worried about the future impact of Recode. He also takes issue with the whole concept of rezoning the whole city at once.

“What’s the hurry? This zoning ordinance has been in place for fifty years. It’s produced a wonderful city, that most would say is one of the best cities in the whole southeast, if not America, and it was all done under the current zoning ordinance,” Kirby said. 

Kirby feels Recode started as a reorganization of the existing code but believes it’s “morphed” into an overhaul of existing maps. He fears this will hinder development because he said the zoning is the first thing developers look at.

“A long list of design standards is not going to be attractive,” he said. While he said right now, his properties in Turkey Creek are comparable between current and proposed zoning, he still fears what the changes could bring. 

Green believes this protects the character of existing neighborhoods, but also creates room for more density where it’s appropriate.

“Every community wants progress. no community wants change and Knoxville more than most,” Green said. He also met the requests of some neighborhood association in the city, like Belmorris and Oak Wood Lincoln Park.

For example, many lots in Oak Wood Lincoln Park are 5,000 square feet, but current rules say they have to be 7,5000 square feet to develop. If a person has a 10,000 square foot lot, this would allow them to build two homes.

In Belmorris, they were currently zoned to allow multi-family developments. Green said they’re now single-family so they won’t be concerned about random apartment buildings showing up. 

Green summed up the proposal with one question: “Do we want that national reputation that we look to the future or we’re so scared of change we go back to the 20th century?

Transparency issue 

WATE 6 On Your Side counted five city councilmembers currently have an appetite to postpone a vote on Recode.

While a majority of the council support many of its ideas, several want more time to make changes before voting on it. 

We will work to keep you updated and informed on this topic. 

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