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Weekend edition March 17, 2023 | Shannon Smith

Advance Knox wants you to be part of the county’s growth

It’s called planning. Specifically, land use and transportation planning, and Knox County’s plan hasn’t been updated in 20 years. A process happening right now is working to fix that.

Knox County keeps growing. More people are moving here, more construction is happening, more life is booming. So how do we make sure that growth goes in the right direction? That the houses we need and businesses we want are going where we want them?

It’s called planning. Specifically, land use and transportation planning, and Knox County’s plan hasn’t been updated in 20 years. But a process happening right now is working to fix that.

Advance Knox is “an effort to define a vision and create a plan that will guide growth, land use, transportation, economic prosperity, and quality of life in the county for years to come,” according to its website, which has a lot of useful data and timelines to check out.

“A lot of people don’t like change, and so they’re like, ‘don’t do anything, just keep it just the way it is,’” said Amy Brooks, Senior Director of Planning and Development. “But if you’re looking out 10, 15, 20 years, we know our population is going to grow. So if we keep growing in the way that we have been growing, these are the consequences of that growth. This is what it’ll look like, and are you okay with that?”

That’s the discussion that the County and Knoxville-Knox County Planning staff have been having with the public as they gather data and community input to design what exactly the future of Knox County will hold as it grows.

Advance Knox is an 18-month process looking specifically at land use and transportation, and how to change it to accommodate that new growth in the future. Brooks gives us a stream-of-consciousness example of how this thought process begins.

“Okay, we have to accommodate approximately 78,000 people over the next 20 years. Where do we think we should grow? Should we continue growing like we have been, which is predominantly low-density single-family housing? Over the past 20 years, 28 square miles of land in the unincorporated county were developed, and much of that has been low-density single-family housing. But moving forward, we have to decide if we want to continue growing in the same way or if we want to see things like town centers and more focused, intentional growth that brings people closer to jobs, retail, and food while preserving some of our remaining rural areas that are an important part of Knox County’s character,” said Brooks.

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Making this new 20-year plan starts with data, and then takes in community input. Two phases of community input have passed, with a third round of sessions scheduled to begin later this month. Brooks said some of the big things people want are the preservation of greenspace, more sidewalks and general walkability, and easier access to food, retail, and jobs closer to their homes.

Taking these wants combined with existing data, the planning team put together a few growth scenarios. Those consider what would happen in Knox County if we changed nothing, changed everything people wanted, or found a middle ground, knowing finances can’t be put to the wayside.

“We have to look at what is the fiscal impact of how we grow?” Brooks said. “What is this going to cost us? We can’t put a sidewalk on every street, that’s just not financially feasible at this point but we can identify areas where we expect future growth to go and what changes we can make to allow land uses and necessary infrastructure improvements to support that growth in a financially responsible way.”

A lot of planning will revolve around housing and the infrastructure needed to support it. Our area doesn’t have enough of it and is losing people and business opportunities because of it.

“We have to have more housing that’s attainable to people at all different ranges,” said Brooks. “We need to think about strategically where we can put housing that is affordable for people at various stages of life – recent graduates, young families, retirees. So if we can really start to dial that in, I think that we can become more competitive as a region and attract higher quality better jobs, which I know is a goal of ours.”

When Advance Knox finishes this planning period, zoning will have to change to accommodate the plan.

“Advance Knox is our community’s vision, and zoning is really the implementation tool,” said Brooks. “The zoning code provides a legal framework that separates incompatible land uses and helps protect the character of our communities.”

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These aren’t overnight changes. You won’t wake up tomorrow to find an old warehouse down your street is suddenly a trendy restaurant with four levels of apartments on top. But these are the steps necessary to make that a reality if it’s wanted.

“We hope that in 20 years we can look back and see that this plan has had a positive impact on Knox County and that this process will set a shared vision for how we grow and outline the policies we need to make that a reality,” said Brooks.

But Brooks said the waiting will be worth it, especially if you want to be part of the change.

“I think people should be excited about this process because it allows them to have an impact on how this area grows over the next 20 years and how it’ll impact their kids or their friends and really influence the quality of life that we have here and preserve what we all really love about Knox County,” said Brooks.

Knox County is launching the third and final round of community input later this month. The next public input sessions are scheduled for March 27th through April 9th.  Five in-person and two virtual events are scheduled to present proposed transportation projects. There will be opportunities for attendees to prioritize the projects and make comments. You can find out more here.

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