By Christopher Salmons
I am a Parkridge resident and am one of many who have organized to fight the city of Knoxville in its efforts to illegally convey public parkland to a private entity for development. For those who may not be aware my neighborhood discovered in May of this year the city’s efforts to sneak a rezoning of a section of Caswell Park through via a change in the Recode Knoxville Map. The city chose this risky route because city parks are protected through a zoning law called Open Space (OS) that was enacted in 2010 which prevents the sale and private development of all city parkland. Once busted the city made a mediocre apology and promised *IF* they were going to pursue this it would be through open and transparent public process. Throughout the summer my neighborhood organization sent multiple emails to city officials asking if this plan to rezone our park were going to continue to which we received no reply. Subsequently we made a grant proposal to develop a section of the parkland in question for a garden which was denied as “the use of the land in question is on review”.
Finally, in early September, Mayor Rogero sent the president of my neighborhood organization a letter outlining her decision to move forward with conveying and rezoning our park and the time frame in which this land grab was to move through the planning commission and then city council for approval, with the public input meeting “to be determined.” On September 23 the city held the FIRST and ONLY public meeting about this after providing only a week’s notice of the meeting date and location. The meeting was packed – standing room only in the community room of the urban league building with the crowd spilling out into the foyer and front sidewalk of the building. After much vocal opposition from the community and after the city confirmed the land that cost taxpayers almost a quarter of a million dollars would be gifted, free of charge, it was also learned that the city had considered NO OTHER SITES before deciding our park was to be forfeit. With only a vague promise that they would “look into the possibility” of green space somewhere else we were then told that the opposition and concerns raised at the meeting were not enough cause for the city to delay and allow more public input.
Fast forward to Thursday, October 10 and we find ourselves at the city county building attending the MPC meeting to determine whether the MPC would recommend our park for rezoning to council or if they would adhere to the boundaries of their authority and deny the rezoning.
The topic of our park began with a sanctimonious statement from Gerald Green (the director of the MPC) lecturing “the public” to not involve emotions and stick to the issue at hand that MPC can deal with. The issue that should have been at hand was MPC asking the commission if the OS2, which in 2010 commanded MPC to resolve any conflicting sector plans, redevelopment plans, one year plans, and any other plans, would allow this rezoning to happen. Since the sector plan map the City is referencing was a direct copy of the map in the 2009 Magnolia Corridor Plan, either MPC was negligent in its duties to correct the plans or they presumed that no idiot would ever imagine that the parks were subject to development.
This question, of course, was never presented because the response would assuredly be against the City’s position. Instead, we were lectured by one commissioner about how she couldn’t sleep at night and this was a difficult issue for her to vote on. Commissioner Clancy gave us a stern lecture on how this grassy area cost too much to maintain and was full of unmaintained play equipment and trash strewn and unworthy of being a park. (Mind you, he stated he drove by the park 3 times last week wrestling with his conscience…. There is no play equipment on this section of the park—it’s a grassy hill)
This is a government that is out of control. The MPC Commissioners were led to believe they were simply voting either for parks or for housing the homeless; this is not a question that is within MPC’s realm of decision making. MPC far exceeded their jurisdiction and overstepped into the legislative responsibilities of City Council. There were no questions from MPC commissioners to MPC staff about the OS2 ordinance and what their limits were. There were no questions about the Sector Plan, the Greenway and Open Space plans, or even they very overlay MPC was basing jurisdiction for even entertaining this proposal instead of denying it outright.
In fact, Commissioners asked no questions at all about the ordinance. Commissioner Cante asked Bill Lyons if the City had investigated other possible alternative sites. Bill Lyons of course lies, telling the Commissioner that the City has investigated the two sites suggested by the Parkridge neighborhood—the City has conducted no such investigation other than generating false reasons why those sites wouldn’t work and then spreading those false reasons to City Council members and others. Not that whether or not the City has or has not investigated other locations is even relevant —-that isn’t within the decision making authority of the MPC and can’t be used in consideration of their decision making.
The MPC, as a quasi-legislative body, has to adhere decision making to the set of rules given to them from City Council so as to avoid creating legislation. MPC staff should have denied this application immediately upon receipt because the OS2 ordinance passed in 2010 directed MPC to resolve any conflicts with the purpose and intent of the OS2 ordinance in any of the Planning plans. If this ordinance was passed in 2010 and since the properties were included, it could only be logically concluded that the Sector Map from 2014 must still be in compliance with this ordinance as the OS2 hadn’t been repealed or amended. This reason alone should make MPC deny any rezoning from OS2 to any other zone.
When a rezoning application is denied, the applicant may appeal to City Council. This is where elected officials (not appointed commissioners or paid staff) can decide to overturn or amend the OS2 ordinance that prevents the rezoning.
This madness has to stop. Government officials must work within the boundaries of the law.
Publisher’s note: The Parkridge community informed me that they have set up a GoFundMe page to help with their legal expenses. You can find it at: www.gofundme.com/f/caswell-park