Knox County Commissioners spent more than two hours debating a controversial application to change the zoning status of about 100 acres of southwest Knox County property to permit the development of more than 300 apartment units, and people on both sides of the debate call it a test case for future development.

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Knox County Commissioners spent more than two hours debating and ultimately approving a controversial application to change the zoning status of about 100 acres of southwest Knox County property to permit the development of more than 300 apartment units, and people on both sides of the debate call it a test case for future development.

Michael Whitaker's home sits on over nine acres of quiet, lake side property. His mother and uncle are his neighbors and they've lived on the plot of land since 1935. When the water level recedes in the winter time, herons can be seen perched on sandy beds and Whitaker says it's the kind of tranquility he enjoys.

"We've lived here 80 years and we hope to live here another 80 years," said Whitaker Monday.

But he's anxious that a developer's plan to put the Westland Cove apartment complex and marina just across the lake will be "out of character" with his sprawling neighborhood.

Three years ago the Metropolitan Planning Commission recommended the county adopt a set of guidelines to govern development for Knoxville's hillsides and ridge tops, the type of land that surrounds the Whitaker family farm.

MPC wrote in the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan (HRPP), " with adoption, it will be an element of the Knoxville Knox County General Plan, representing a set of proposals and policies to provide for protection of sensitive hillside and ridge top areas of Knoxville-Knox County, while still allowing for development."

However, Whitaker says the recommendations are being ignored in this instance.

Developer John Huper owners about 100 acres of land on either side of Emory Church Road, parallel to Pellissippi Parkway. Some of the land is designated for a future marina, according to plans, and other parcels are too steep or sloped to be suitable for development, says Whitaker.

So although the parcel of land encompasses about 100 acres, only 50 or so will be used to build apartments. However, the size of the full lot was factored into the equation set forth by the HRPP to calculate the number of units recommended for the development.

The result, says Whitaker, is about 5 units per acre on a piece of land that otherwise would have been suitable for about two and a half, according to the formula.

"My concern is the density they're talking about putting there," said Whitaker.

Huper says he's following the "spirit of the hillside ridge top protection." He says the design involves minimal blasting, builds on the flattest land parcels, and provides for 25 acres to be left undeveloped as green space . He also says the area is exploding with demand for high-end apartments, like the ones he proposes to build.

The HRPP sets guidelines, not laws, and Huper says this is an appropriate place to allow this volume of apartments given it's proximity to a major regional interstate.

In addition, Huper says he has gotten the blessing of the MPC in a 14-1 vote, visited with homeowners, and made concessions along the way.

"If you can't put it next to an interstate, where can you put it?" asked Huper. "If all our things add up and we can't get approved, what kind o message is that sending?"

He treats it as common wisdom that most of the desirable land for development in the Knoxville area has already been snapped up and says figuring out how to work with the steep ridgelines that remain is the next frontier in Knox County development.

Commissioner Amy Broyles told 10News she intended to vote against the zoning change Monday, echoing Whitaker's concerns about the number of units.

She says she expects the debate to become a reoccurring one as development in the county increases, and available land does not.

"I think that we can't get ahead of ourselves, that we're so excited about new development that we are going to just approve everything that comes before us," said Broyles.

Commissioners voted 6 to 5 to approve the zoning changes Monday night. However, Whitaker says they can still voice concerns to the board that hear's zoning appeal cases. His family also says they're prepared to sue the county if the project moves forward.

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