District Five Commission Candidates answer Focus Questions

By Mike Steely

Early voting for seven Knox County Commission seats starts on February 12 when voters begin going to the polls to select 7 of the 11 commissioners, a public defender, law director, property assessor, and four school board members. That Primary Election will end on March 3rd when nominees from both political parties will be chosen.

We now turn to District Five, which has Republican incumbent John Schoonmaker facing fellow Republican Clayton Wood.  The winner of the Primary will face Democrat Kimberly Peterson.

We asked the candidates the following questions and here are the replies.

  1. What’s the largest problem in your District?

Schoonmaker

The 5th District has enjoyed tremendous growth in residential development.  The road systems need to be updated and expanded to accommodate the increase in traffic.  I have been pursuing funding for the Canton Hollow Road project for the past 4 years to address this issue.  This $7 million road upgrade is scheduled to begin in July.  In addition, I look forward to working with the Town of Farragut and Knox County to prioritize other road improvement projects.

Wood

The 5th District faces the problem of politicians who want to raise taxes. We have great schools with wonderful and involved PTA’s that contribute enormously, we need smart growth with the necessary investments in infrastructure, but our biggest threat is politicians who think the solution for any challenge the 5th District faces is more government and higher taxes. I strongly disagree and will oppose any property tax increase.

Peterson

The largest challenge we face in District 5 is indicative of the largest problem facing Knox County as a whole – responsible development and growth. District 5, which includes parts of West Knoxville, Concord and Farragut, struggles with the issue of how to continue to grow to accommodate the need for more housing and businesses while remaining considerate of environmental factors and the desires of the neighborhoods and community members it serves.  Our district is often plagued with flooding and it can partly be attributed to not taking into greater account the environmental landscape (natural flood plains, sinkholes, etc) upon which much of our area’s development was established.

County Commission, the Metropolitan Planning Commission and all governmental entities must make plans with greater input and cooperation with the communities they serve.  As it stands now, there seems to be an adversarial relationship where growth and development is being thrusted upon neighborhoods and yet, it is the neighborhoods and the citizens who must deal with the aftermath of such decisions.  I think a prime example of this tension is evident in proposal to amend the Knoxville Growth Policy Plan.  The 2001 plan aimed to limit forced annexation, discourage urban sprawl and preserve rural and agricultural areas.  The amendment would eliminate some of those protections that the plan established.   We are seeing resistance to this change not only amongst neighborhood associations but by the Town of Farragut officials as well.  I stand with them that in relaxing the plan’s protections, we are pushing development with little to no regard to infrastructure. It is unfair to have developers and the county benefit from growth while the community members are punished with more traffic and congestion, for example.  We must find a reasonable balance which takes into consideration growth and progress but does not cause further problems down the road for our future tax payers.  We can find a balance where it is more a collaborative relationship between developers and the community so that this is not an “us vs. them” situation.

  1. Should the Law Director be elected or appointed? Please explain

Schoonmaker

The citizens of Knox County voted to adopt a Charter Government in 1988.  In Section 3.08 of the Charter, it states that the Law Director is to be elected by vote of the citizens.  As a lifelong Republican, I am in favor of upholding the Charter because I believe in the right of the citizens to elect their constitutional officer.

Wood

The law director should be appointed in Knox County. Our law director is the only elected law director in the state of Tennessee. Having a law director with a political agenda who continues to call things illegal that he does not like (like a clearly legal TVA tower deal) and who wasted over a million tax payer dollars in a lawsuit seeking to prevent the sheriff’s office from getting their full pension is a real shame and frustrates me especially as an attorney who finds agenda based legal practice galling.

Peterson

I understand that the option to have the Knox County’s Law Director position be appointed may come before the Knox County Charter Review Committee.  After weighing both the pros and cons of this change, I would oppose this position becoming an appointed one.  While there is some merit to the argument that the mayor would select someone who may be more well qualified than the voters would, the appearance of the position being independent and perhaps less easily influenced greatly diminishes with the role being an appointed one.  Our government is designed to be a system of checks and balances to insure that no one official or entity has unchecked power and influence.  I see having the voters decide the outcome of who becomes the Law Director as a means to put that system of checks and balances into praxis.

  1. Make a statement about Knoxville Center Mall and it’s possible use by county government

Schoonmaker

Knoxville Center Mall recently paid their county property taxes and is now in a position to begin negotiations with any Knox County Office to lease space.  I could see a potential opportunity for the Sheriff’s Office to evaluate occupying space.  For development of the entire 88 acres, I believe it could work as a public – private partnership.

Wood

Knoxville Center Mall should be redeveloped in a way that keeps a very large piece of property surrounded by successful businesses on the tax rolls. I have the utmost confidence in the leadership of Avison Young (the Real Estate Firm representing the seller), and I am certain that wonderful and important property will contribute in the private sector to the health of Knox County. Spending over 150 million dollars on a project to convert it to a massive governmental building that is almost 10 minutes further away from Farragut Town Hall than the City County Building is not an idea that I support.

Peterson

The closing of the Knoxville Center Mall this month has led the current Knox County Commissioners to explore what will be done with the abandoned property.  The question has become whether the County should purchase the property and after adequate updates and renovation, use the space for government offices or step back and leave it to the private sector to redevelop.  In December, County Commission proposed and passed an amended resolution to conduct a feasibility study to explore what the best use of the area is. I look forward to reading the findings of the study.

While the move of county offices from downtown to the Knoxville Center Mall, would be a further commute for some citizens who live in the far west parts of the county, I do see some advantages when it comes to parking, for example.  We must also weigh the cost of purchasing the property and any necessary renovations that must be made.  If the study finds that the decision to move is not financially sound, I hope that County Commission will continue to work with the private sector to find a viable solution for the property.  I have seen creative solutions in other areas such as the mixed use of a strip mall in the Nashville area where it is now occupied by Vanderbilt specialists and retail.

  1. How do you feel about moving the school offices to the TVA Towers?

Schoonmaker

Once official documents were finalized and the financial package was in place, I supported the initiative to move county offices to the TVA East Tower.  In the near future, it gives Knox County the option to move other county departments to the adjoining Summer Place Complex.

Wood

I strongly support it. The AJ Building is a hotel that is now working poorly as offices and as a building has a tremendous amount of deferred maintenance. Congressman Burchett was right to want to move the school administration out, and Mayor Jacobs is going to have a deal that I believe will be looked upon as fiscally brilliant for the next 25 years. The deal with TVA seems too good to be true, but the truth is that TVA has specific security requirements because of the connectivity of the two tower buildings that make the tower attractive only to other governmental entities. Some have voiced concerns that some Knox County School employees may not be able to pass a federal background check, and my response is that if you cannot pass a federal background check I do not think you are the right person to work with children. We are getting a 20-25 million dollar parking garage for less than 1/10 of its market value, we are creating synergies between the University of Tennessee system and Knox County Schools and we are getting better office space than what the school system currently has for well below market rates. We also will be getting a building that is currently off the tax rolls back on them, and mixed use development in that building will bring taxes to Knox County.

Peterson

At the January 27th meeting, Knox County Commission voted unanimously to move forward with the proposal of the county purchasing the TVA East Tower and the Summer Place parking garage.  There seem to be “loose ends” that need to be cleared up and State Senator Massey has requested advice from the State Attorney General.  I am pleased to see that there is language in the proposal that gives a deadline of September 2020 to have these outstanding issues resolved.  Though Superintendent Bob Thomas is supportive of the move of school offices to the TVA Towers, I would like to learn more about the Knoxville School Board’s position as well as teacher’s groups such as the Knox County Education Association and SPEAK – Students Parents and Educators Across Knoxville.  I believe Commissioner Busler’s concerns that he has voiced about access by parents and taxpayers to the offices is a valid one and needs to be satisfactorily resolved.  Incidentally, it is important to point out that at a November 2019 meeting with governmental officials and community members which took place at Farragut High School, all 65 people in attendance voted in opposition of the school system moving to the TVA Tower when asked by current County Commissioner Schoonmaker.  I believe that we must listen to the voices of the educators, educational and support staff, as well as the taxpayers, regarding this move and if a majority are opposed, we should not move forward.

  1. What type of business or industry is needed in your District?

Schoonmaker

The 5th District is about 70% residential.  The Turkey Creek Shopping complex and the Kingston Pike business corridor provide a variety of business opportunities.  However, there is a need for flexible office space for new companies that support the technology in Innovation Valley and Oak Ridge.

Wood

Glenn Jacobs has a regional approach to development that I strongly support. Knoxville is the prettiest place to change the world, and as ORNL develops metamaterials and other breakthroughs that have massive economic impact, as logistics companies grow in the key hub we are, as software companies and marketing companies realize that they can sell their products anywhere, what will attract them and retain them here is unparalleled quality of life. We have great schools, safe neighborhoods with excellent law enforcement, great residential neighborhoods that are affordable and a low tax burden. As the 5th District Commissioner I will support efforts that keep Knox County business friendly for the high wage jobs that give us such a great quality of life.

Peterson

I am hearing that they would like to see more small local, not franchised or chain owned, businesses.  Many of them have expressed envy at the types of businesses with progressive concepts that are popping up in other areas of the county.  We needs businesses that reflect the diversity within our district and county.  5th District citizens have also cited a lack of gathering places which foster community as well as venues for meetings and special events.

It is imperative, as we consider what type of businesses and industry we bring to the 5th District, County Commission, the Town of Farragut, and the planning commissions that we come up with a strategic plan for growth that takes into considerate adequate infrastructure – roads, sidewalks, and utilities – as well as environmental factors and the natural landscape.  The 5th District has been plagued with flooding issues as well as horrific traffic and with any talk of growth, we must seriously address these challenges as well as their effect on the community.  Lastly, the 5th District needs to address the issue of the large number of abandoned properties and empty buildings which need to be repurposed.

  1. How do you feel about Historic Zoned neighborhoods?

Schoonmaker

In the 5th District we are fortunate to have preserved the Concord Village Historic District.  Every month I review all county zoning applications in order to stay informed on zoning changes that may affect neighborhoods.  For 24 years, I have been an advocate for all neighborhoods and as such will continue to protect historic zoned neighborhoods.

Wood

I think the Village of Concord is beautiful. The mantle in my home was purchased from an estate sale there. I am also grateful for the efforts to stabilize and protect important buildings like Campbell Station Inn, and the handful of antebellum homes that are on Kingston Pike from Statesview, Baker Peters mansion etc. I think protecting and preserving our past is important and I am thankful for the work of Knox Heritage. I think saving the Eugenia Williams house was important and illustrates that non governmental entities like the Aslan Foundation can and should lead the way in this area.

Peterson

District 5 is fortunate to house the gem that is known as the Village of Concord Historic District within its borders.  This area contains a large number of houses and commercial businesses that were constructed between 1840 and 1935. The structures contained within the Village of Concord Historic District reflect a variety of architectural styles.  Currently, this area is heavily protected by the Knox County Historic Commission with any changes, alterations, or additions needed to be approved by this body.  I wholeheartedly support maintaining the local historic overlay for the Village of Concord that was adopted in 2001.  I believe that most people who purchase property within Historic Zoned neighborhoods do so because they want to “own a piece of history” and are willing to cooperate with the requirements.  Current and future development can take place while still respecting the historic architecture.

  1. How do you feel about the effort to revamp Chilhowee Park?

Schoonmaker

Chilhowee Park is under the City of Knoxville’s jurisdiction and is not a project that the Knox County Commission will have the opportunity to vote on.

Wood

My wife and 5 children enjoy two well run and amazing resources for our community in the Muse children’s museum led by my friend Ellie Kittrell and the Knoxville Zoo led by my friend Lisa New. I think paying a consultant group $200,000 to tell us that we should spend $100 million dollars on Chilhowee Park and end the largest draw the park has annually in the Tennessee Valley Fair was almost as bad an idea as the money losing park (-$800,000) ending the gun show. The gun show was not a contributor to the gun violence in the area, and ending it will not end violence, but does contribute to a perception that the city is hostile to the Second Amendment. I am grateful as a strong supporter of the Second Amendment that Knox County does not suffer from anti gun political stunts. East Knoxville is an area where my ministry serves and I am excited to see economic development happening there. Chilhowee Park must address flooding issues, and investment in East Knoxville should focus on increasing opportunities for tourists to come and spend money in the area, not on running them off in anticipation of an incredibly expensive concert venue that there is no demand for.

Peterson

The study of the possible future uses of Chilhowee Park and Expo Center released last Fall was helpful in exploring the feasibility of revitalizing this area.  Chilhowee has been hosting tried and true crowd pleasing events as well new and innovative events like the Dragon Lights Festival.  I agree with the study that this area could continue to be a huge draw for Knoxville, Knox County and our region as well.  There are a number of challenges to any revamp or investment of Chilhowee Park such as resolving the flooding issues, possibly expanding the roads area the park to accommodate increased traffic, and whether the Tennessee Valley Fair would need to relocate.  Ultimately, it seems to be the decision of City Council and the City of Knoxville whether or not to move forward with this project but as County Commissioner, I would encourage the Commission to work collaboratively in appropriate ways with those entities.

  1. How do you feel about greenways in the county?

Schoonmaker

I support greenways in Knox County.  I am also supporting the Northshore Drive Greenway initiative which includes the greenways from Concord Park to the Loudon County line and from Concord Park to Pellissippi Parkway.  Knox County Commission should begin discussing funding for these needed greenways during fiscal year 2021 budget meetings.

Wood

I am a big fan of greenways and I hope we will continue to develop and implement plans to connect them.

Peterson

Again, 5th District is extremely blessed to have a large number of greenways in our district, many of which I personally utilize.  I have walked many of the greenways including the one at Grisby Chapel Road and near McFee Park.  I find greenways provide an opportunity to increase exercise, foster a sense of community by getting people out of their homes and interacting with one another, as well as connect with nature.  The greenways have the potential to also be a means of using alternative transportation if the routes were connected.  I am pleased to see that Mayor Jacobs has made this a priority during his tenure and that the current Knox County Commission voted to adopt the findings of the Knox County Greenways Corridor study.

With that said, I am disappointed that at that same County Commission meeting, County Commission decided 6-2 to support Mayor Jacobs’s ordinance to loosen the regulations that require subdivisions put in sidewalks in all new subdivisions.  The argument against such requirements has mainly come from those developing those new subdivisions who say that the sidewalks are not connected to anything at this time so should not be required.  I disagree with this logic and also with the County Commission’s vote.  We must be forward thinking and have a comprehensive or holistic view when planning current developments as it is more expensive and difficult to go back and retro fit sidewalks later.  I have heard from a number of constituents in 5th district complain about the lack of sidewalks and accessibility in getting around the area.  I believe not building new construction to include sidewalk infrastructure is a decision which we will regret in the not so distant future.

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