Democracy was described by Benjamin Franklin as two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. While revisionists and “progressives” love to toss around the term, democracy is essentially mob rule. It was abhorred by the astute founders of this nation whose study of early democracies demonstrated to them that democracies quickly devolved into anarchy followed by tyranny. Instead, the writers of our Constitution wisely chose to create a representative republic; a republic of law based on a moral code that gave equal protection to the lambs (the weak and minorities) as it did to the majority and the wolves. The “Great Experiment” of America didn’t take long to become the envy of the world. In many ways that “experiment” is still in the laboratory as we seek to learn if it can survive its own success. But that is a subject for another discussion.
As Knoxville began expanding westward in the 1960s and ’70s the beautiful rolling farmland along Highway 70 appealed to many, and developers began buying farms in the area of what is now Farragut and building subdivisions. It did not take long before the new homeowners in the area outnumbered the original landowners, as one 40-acre farm (once occupied by a family of seven or eight) was soon occupied by 150 or more new residents.
Now with close to 22,000 residents occupying the 16.2 square miles within the boundaries of the town of Farragut, not long ago occupied by perhaps a couple of hundred families, the remaining few original owners of large tracts of land in Town are down to just a handful. They represent a tiny minority of the Town’s residents, perhaps less than one-half of 1 percent. They have become the sheep in my analogy.
Now to my point. Around 2007 the Town began incorporating the “Complete Streets” concept into its planning, and in 2010 the Town’s Planning Commission approved the concept and submitted it to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen for informational purposes, favoring the new standards for all street improvements required for development of its remaining land. These streets would require not only wider traffic lanes, but bike lanes, curb and gutter, 5-foot sidewalks on one side and an 8-foot walking trail on the other, and to meet strict grade and curve requirements among other things. It seemed like a great idea. We all want good safe roads.
But the one thing left out of the equation was a funding mechanism to pay for all this. Now a study funded by the Town has been completed that estimates it may take upwards of $51 million to upgrade the remaining unimproved nine miles of road in six corridors of Town. This is a daunting figure. To put it in perspective, this would consume more than the entire revenue of the Town for the next seven years to accomplish.
What this is being interpreted to mean is that the remaining land in Town cannot be developed until these roads are improved to the new standard. By a mechanism termed “Impact Fees,” an attempt is being made to make the remaining landowners and any new residents purchasing lots on these lands be made to bear the burden of improving these roads. It is as if somehow it was their fault that the Town has decreed their roads deficient. None of the other residents of the Town, which is now more than 80 percent developed, paid any such assessment to have their roads built or improved. This is democracy as opposed to the rule of law. The landowners’ tiny fractional vote in this matter is virtually meaningless. The wolves just voted on whom to have for lunch.
But we do not live in a democracy, and the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly on this matter. “Impact Fees,” the disparate and discriminatory imposition of “fees” on certain classes or groups of citizens is illegal, immoral, unjust and wrong. And while the promoters of this shortsighted, wrongheaded form of taxation keep tweaking and adjusting the concept to evade the courts, it will always be wrong. Furthermore, their own figures indicate that it will take more than 30 years by this method to only pay for less than 25 percent of the cost of the roads in question … if ever. Meanwhile since the Town began attempting imposition of the burden of road improvements directly onto development, lot development has slowed to a crawl, with almost no new development on the corridors in question. The three developments underway back when this was implemented: Lantern Park on Everette Road, Baldwin Park on Boring Road and The Farm at Willow Creek on Evans Road all went bankrupt.
So what is the Town to do, when one of its founding principles was better and safer roads? What is it to do when it is striving to overcome a very negative image in the business, real estate, development and construction communities? What is it to do when it is no longer the only ball game in Town and many storefronts on our main corridors are shuttered and empty? What is it to do when deep South Knox County, Hardin Valley and even Lenoir City are outstripping our growth and progress? What is it to do when it is set to lose a significant share of revenue due to the demise of the Hall Income Tax?
Certainly the last thing this town needs to do is to introduce a retrograde, illicit tax such as “Impact Fees” to further drive away progress from Town. Instead, what we need to do is lead. With the talent and wisdom this Town possesses we need to show the rest of the county, state and nation a responsible way forward. If we want to show businesses that we are indeed friendly and ensure the Town’s tax base for years to come, if we want to fill up the empty storefronts, if we want to raise property values for every homeowner in our Town, if we want to have the best and safest roads in the region, and if we want to raise the value of the last developable land in Town to command the highest prices and ensure quality development, the answer is simple.
First, instead of chasing them away, we need to embrace the development community that brought us all the fine homes and stores that we love. Who knows better how to build roads and infrastructure than they? Let’s commit to raising the funds to build the roads, then let them develop the property when the owners are ready to sell and let them contract to get the roads built. This gives them economies of scale and a stronger negotiating posture with their subcontractors and takes the burden off the Town. We pay them to get it done for us and everybody wins.
Meanwhile, let’s work hard to promote Farragut as the retail, dining and hospitality Mecca for the region by harnessing the Interstates flowing through Town in new and creative ways. Let’s find ways to attract high-volume, big-ticket retailers to our Interstate frontage on Outlet Drive and help them succeed. And by providing value to these businesses, let’s generate revenues to pay for our desired improvements from those passing through, not on the backs of our citizens. What about an Aubrey’s with Interstate frontage? A new Lowe’s or Christmas Lumber location to sell all the building materials for the new homes and businesses we will attract? A motorcycle and RV dealer, etc?
Let’s put a few sheep dogs in the mix with the lambs and wolves and keep Farragut the shining star we all know it can be.