Perplexing Plans

Illustration by R. Daniel Proctor

Politics around puzzling planning projects and the apathy of voters

When I was Knoxville’s public affairs director, I had to attend only one Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commission meeting: after 30 minutes, I concluded that mayors appointed members to this commission to punish them. It was like watching someone describe putting each piece into a giant jigsaw puzzle. However, people who understand planning and zoning details are important, because their knowledge can, or might, protect the rest of us. 

Advance Knox is the latest iteration in the parade of plans and planning constantly conducted by government and citizen groups. Plans, by their nature, take time to craft, are typically lengthy, and go into what is, for most people, excruciating detail in a foreign language.  Two main plan types are: government, like the county’s Advance Knox plan, developed to guide public land use; and outside-government plans, created by concerned citizens or groups. 

In planning, politics is always in play. For example, Nine Counties, One Vision (NCOV) debuted at the 21st century’s dawning as a privately-originating planning effort to improve cooperation within the Middle-East Tennessee region. At NCOV’s start there was enthusiasm, media coverage, and public “visioning” meetings where people showed up to volunteer their regional improvement ideas. But support wasn’t universal, which wasn’t well-liked.  

“Any one politician who doesn’t fully support Nine Counties, One Vision, shouldn’t be elected to office,” said a woman during a 2002 Leadership Knoxville class group discussion. There were murmurs of assent, with many nodding heads. I spoke up, not in opposition to NCOV, but to explain the political facts of life.

“There are 700,000 people or more in the nine counties,” I said. “In comparison, only a fraction attended the visioning meetings, (if memory serves, it was less than 2,000) and only several hundred in subsequent meetings. That means a tiny number from all nine counties. Now, let’s say the county executive of Sevier County helps Roane County get a big new business. That’s a good thing, but the Sevier County executive can’t run for reelection saying he did a great thing for Roane County: Sevier County taxpayers want to know what he’s doing for them, with their money, where they live. So, there are practical reasons why elected officials might not seem to be 100% behind everything in Nine Counties, One Vision.” Afterwards, an elected official in the class thanked me. Why hadn’t he said something? Because he didn’t want it to appear he didn’t completely support NCOV. Politics, you know.

As controversial as a plan might be before it passes, silence usually descends once the deal is done. The Recode Knoxville zoning plan was approved in 2019 by City Council after two years of work, the standard public meetings, and wrangling. Recode was controversial over complaints both technical and political. But since its passage, not much has been heard about Recode. That, as well as its complexity, dampens Recode as a future city election issue.

In the early 1990s a citizens group created a plan called KnoxVision 2000, made up of committees which made recommendations on a number of subjects: maybe someone knows what became of it? And we’re 20 years into Knox 2033, the Knoxville-Knox County General Plan, adopted in 2003; Google-search that one and you won’t find many entries. The more complicated the plan, the less public interest it generates. And they’re all complicated. 

The people involved with a plan want something, however laudable. While plans give, they also take away, or change something that gores someone’s ox. Usually, it comes down to money: who gets it, keeps it, or loses it.  Competing interests usually want what they want, and what someone else wants doesn’t matter. An elected official may see promoting a plan as a way of moving up the political ladder. Other elected officials, who don’t like him or her – and who want their own ladder space – will support or oppose the plan as best suits their ambitions. 

Most people will spend a lot more time talking and thinking about who should be president of the United States than they will learning about a plan that can affect in perpetuity their home values and quality of life. That’s because understanding planning is harder.  

And the plans won’t stop coming. Because of all the counties in all the states in all the country, there’s always someone with a new plan to improve this one. Whether it does or doesn’t, the question is, will anyone notice?  

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