Bill Advancing in General Assembly Would Limit Knoxville Voter Rights

A bill moving forward in the Tennessee General Assembly would disenfranchise Knoxville voters in the selection of district representatives on city council. To address this unprecedented attempt to remove voting rights from Knoxville voters, Knoxville City Council has called a special meeting on Wednesday, March 22nd at 6PM in the small assembly room of the City County building. Council will consider a resolution opposing SB 526 and reaffirming Knoxville’s position as a home rule municipality.

SB 526 could be heard by the Senate’s State and Local Government Committee between now and early April. If passed and signed into law, the bill would limit Knoxville city voters to voting only for their district representative, rather than our current system which empowers all city voters to participate in each district’s city-wide general election.

In my previous blog, I outlined the impact this change would have in singling out the 5th Council District, whose voters would only vote in city elections once every four years, as well as how it would eliminate the important inter-district relationships each council member has city-wide, decrease voter turnout, and dramatically limit citizen engagement.

Today, I want to explore another reason why this bill should be opposed, commonly referred to as the “Home Rule” amendment found in Article 11, Section 9 of the Tennessee State Constitution. The “Home Rule” amendment transfers the General Assembly’s power to enact legislation affecting a city to the city’s qualified voters and its city government. In part, the amendment states, “any municipality after adopting home rule may continue to operate under its existing charter, or amend the same, or adopt and thereafter amend a new charter to provide for its governmental and proprietary powers, duties and functions, and for the form, structure, personnel and organization of its government…” The effect of this adoption means that a city is guaranteed the right to have local control over matters of local concern including the form and structure of local government and its operation and functioning if the voters adopt “Home Rule.”

In 1954, the voters of Knoxville overwhelmingly approved “Home Rule” by city-wide referendum. Support for “Home Rule” was secured by a vote of 8,079 to 1,679. Article 11, Section 9 of the Tennessee State Constitution further states, “In the event of an affirmative vote by a majority of the qualified voters voting thereon, and until the repeal thereof by the same procedure, such municipality shall be a home rule municipality, and the General Assembly shall act with respect to such home rule municipality only by laws which are general in terms and effect.”

SB 526 is not the first time that Knoxville’s City Council has requested that the General Assembly “act with respect” to home rule. In 1989, Knoxville City Council passed a resolution requesting that members of the Knox County Delegation be “vigilant in (1) thwarting legislation which would undermine or circumvent the provisions of Home Rule and (2) supporting legislation which supports the provisions of Home Rule.”

With the overwhelming support of Council in calling a special meeting on this topic, I am urging all of Knoxville to join us on March 22nd and voice your opposition of SB 526.  This unwarranted and extraordinary attempt to undermine and circumvent the will of the people must be stopped.

New General Assembly Bill Seeks to Limit Knoxville Voter Rights

A bill that seeks to strip Knoxville voter rights is making its way through the Tennessee General Assembly with a key vote happening on Tuesday, February 28th, 2023. In Knoxville City Council district races, bill HB817/SB526 would limit city voters to voting only for their own district representative on city council. Our current system allows voters in each Council district to select their top two preferences in the primary prior to the city-wide general election, providing first a district and then a city-wide opportunity to vote in district races. I strongly oppose HB817/SB526 because the voice of Knoxville city voters should not be limited to district only voting. Our focus should be on expanding voter connection to their representatives, not limiting them.

5th District example: Under present law, all Knoxville city voters can vote every two years with districts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 in one four-year cycle and district 5, Knoxville mayor, and our three at-large council representatives in a separate four-year cycle two years later. However, if HB817/SB526 becomes law and Knoxville city voters can only vote for their own district representatives, 5th district voters will only be able to vote every four years when their district representative, the Knoxville city mayor, and our three at-large city council representatives are on the ballot. Singling out the 5th district and limiting those voters to only one vote every four years, when every other district votes every two-years, is completely unacceptable. Every voter in every district deserves an equal voice in their city government.

We must retain our current city voting system which encourages each council member to collaborate with neighbors in all 6 Knoxville districts. Every current Knoxville city council member is deeply invested and knowledgeable on what is happening across Knoxville, and every resident has the ear of all nine members, not just their district representatives. I believe this proposed change would effectively erase these critical inter-district relationships, decrease voter turnout, and dramatically limit citizen engagement.

Knoxville has a long history of city-wide voting for all city council members. Prior to 1969, Knoxville had a seven member city council all of whom were at-large representatives. In 1969, a Charter change went into effect expanding council to six district representatives and three at-large representatives. For the past 54 years, all district seats have had a primary in the district with the top two vote getters moving on to a city-wide general election. Since 1969, every representative on city council from the 6th district has been a person of color with our present council being the most diverse ever.

As engaged city voters, it is important for you to understand HB817/SB526 and the negative impact it would have on Knoxville’s elections. Reach out to legislators in the House Local Government Committee and the Senate State and Local Government Committee now to let them know you oppose HB817/SB526.

For The Care and Keeping of Animals

On Tuesday, January 24, 2023, Knoxville City Council will take up an update to City Code, Chapter 5 to establish additional minimum requirements for the care and keeping of animals on second reading. Item 9b was the focus of a great deal of public input and debate during first reading on January 10th. You can watch the discussion by following the link here to the Knoxville Community Media recording of the meeting. For ease of review:

  • Time Stamp 1:32:35 – Reading of the agenda item and related procedural motions
  • Time Stamp 1:39:03 – Public Forum on agenda items
  • Time Stamp 2:27:53 – Council Debate on agenda items

Most of the discussion was focused on making tethering of an animal unlawful unless a responsible and competent person is supervising. This means that the owner or a person designated by the owner is outside with the tethered animal and within visual range. You can find this specific section on packet page 23, beginning at section (c).

In addition to the unsupervised tethering section, there are other important animal welfare updates that I’d like to share with you:

First, the update increases fines for violations from $25 to $50.

The update makes it unlawful to transport or confine an animal in a manner that causes pain, suffering or death including keeping an animal in a vehicle or other type of conveyance without adequate ventilation or enclosing any animal in the trunk of a vehicle.

Further, the update requires owners to provide clean, sanitary, and humane conditions and provide the minimum care sufficient to preserve the health and well-being of the animal. This includes:

  • Food in sufficient quantity to allow for normal growth or maintenance of body weight.
  • Access to fresh, clean, potable water in sufficient quantity to satisfy the animal’s needs. Water must be shaded and cool in warm weather and unfrozen in cold weather. Snow or ice is not an adequate water source.
  • Provide immediate veterinary care to relieve distress from injury, neglect, or disease.
  • Provide adequate space for exercise, for dogs that is an area at least 200 square feet per animal for animals housed outside.
  • Owners must bring animals inside during periods of extreme weather conditions including temperatures over 85 degrees or temperatures 32 degrees or lower. This includes periods of snow, ice, sleet, severe lightning, tornadoes, flooding, and fires.

The update also makes it unlawful to:

  • Intentionally or knowingly torture, maim or grossly overwork an animal.
  • Unreasonably abandon an animal in a person’s custody.
  • Inflict burns, cuts, lacerations or other injuries or pain by any method, including blistering compounds for any purpose including the legs or hooves of horses to make them sore for any purpose including competition in horse shows and similar events.
  • Tie, tether, or restrain an animal in a manner that results in the animal suffering bodily injury.
  • Tease, molest, bait or in any other way bother any animal.

If you’d like to read the complete proposed ordinance update that Council will consider at the January 24, 2023 meeting, you can follow the link here, item 9b begins on packet page 14.

I’m pleased to support this common sense update to our city code and will keep working on measures that advance the well-being of all in Knoxville.

Amendments Explained: What’s on the ballot?

Several constituents have reached out asking about the four proposed amendments to the Tennessee Constitution on the ballot. While I understand that these amendments don’t specifically concern Knoxville City Council, I wanted to share some specifics and background about these proposed amendments.


First, there are two ways that the Tennessee State Constitution can be amended. (Link to Current Tennessee State Constitution)

1. Legislatively Referred Constitutional Amendments – As established in Article 11, Section 3, either house of the Tennessee State Legislature can propose amendments to the State Constitution through two votes by both houses. The first vote requires a majority of members of both houses. If successful, the proposed amendment is referred to the next session of the legislature that meets after the next State election. Proposed amendments must be published six months before the election that intervenes between the first session and the second session of the legislature that considers the amendment.

The second vote requires a two-third vote by each house. If successful, the proposed amendment is placed on the statewide ballot at “the next general election in which a governor is to be chosen.” The proposed amendment is enacted if it gains more “yes” votes than “no” votes and if the “yes” votes equal “a majority of all the citizens of the state voting for governor.”

2. Constitutional Convention – Article 11, Section 3, provides another option to amend our State Constitution by a constitutional convention. The legislature can submit to the people “at any general election the question of calling a convention to alter, reform, or abolish this Constitution or any parts of it.” If a majority of all the voters voting upon the convention question approve the proposal, a convention is then called to consider the proposals as received a favorable vote.

The delegates to the convention are chosen at the next general election and the convention will assemble for the consideration of the proposals that received a favorable vote. Amendments are not effective until ratified by a majority of the qualified voters voting separately on such change at an election to be held in a manner and date as fixed by the convention. The state cannot hold a convention “oftener than once in six years.”

Amendments Explained

Proposed 2022 Tennessee Constitutional Amendments on the Ballot:

  • Amendment 1: Proposes a new section in Article 11 of the Tennessee Constitution, which adds the following:

“It is unlawful for any person, corporation, association, or this state of its political subdivisions to deny or attempt to deny employment to any person by reason of the person’s membership in, affiliation with, resignation from, or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization.”

It is important to note that Tennessee already has a statute, originally adopted in 1947, with nearly identical language as the proposed amendment. Therefore, voting yes or no, the state law will remain the same. The only difference is the process by which any future changes would have to go through.

Existing Tennessee Law, adopted in 1947

If this language is added to the Tennessee Constitution, any changes regarding Tennessee’s right to work status would have to go through a lengthy process to amend the State Constitution. In other words, this amendment would make it more difficult to change or remove Tennessee’s status as a right to work state in the future.

  • Amendment 2: Proposes a process for the appointment of an acting governor. In its current form, Article 3, section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution addresses the line of succession, in the event the governor dies, resigns, or is removed. First in line is the Speaker of the Senate (currently Randy McNally) followed by the Speaker of the House (currently Cameron Sexton).

However, there is no procedure for succession in the event the governor is temporarily incapacitated. Voting “yes” on this proposed amendment creates a process by which gubernatorial powers may be temporarily assumed following the line of succession in the event the governor is temporarily incapacitated.  

The Amendment retains the same line of succession upon certification by the governor that he or she is temporarily incapacitated. An example would be if the governor was unconscious for a scheduled medical procedure, the Speaker of the Senate would temporarily act as governor. In the event that the office of Speaker of the Senate was unoccupied, the Speaker of the House would temporarily act as governor. However, upon certification that he or she has regained their ability, the governor would resume his or her duties.

Further, the Amendment provides a process by which a majority of the commissioners of the administrative departments of the state executive branch may declare the governor temporarily incapacitated in the event the governor is unable or unwilling to make this declaration. Again, with the temporary responsibility of office first passing to the Speaker of the Senate and if that office is unoccupied, extending to the Speaker of the House.

This proposed process could be initiated by the governor or by a majority of the commissioners of the administrative departments of the state executive branch. Further clarification provides that either the Speaker of the Senate or Speaker of the House, who is acting governor retains their legislative role and salary, but are not able to preside as speaker or vote as a legislator while serving as acting governor.

  • Amendment 3: Presently, Article 1, section 33 of the Tennessee Constitution provides, “that slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this state.”

The language in the proposed Amendment would change this to, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”

This amendment removes language from the Tennessee State Constitution allowing a person convicted of a crime to be subjected to slavery or involuntary servitude as a form of punishment.

  • Amendment 4: In its present form, Article 9, section 1 of the Tennessee Constitution provides, “Whereas ministers of the Gospel are by their progression, dedicated to God and the care of souls, and ought not be diverted from the great duties of their functions; therefore, no minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the legislature.”

    Voting “yes” on Amendment 4 deletes section 1 in its entirety. It is important to note that this section has not been enforced since 1978, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in McDaniel v. Paty. In that case, Paul McDaniel, a Baptist Minister from Chattanooga, successfully overturned this provision as a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The result of the case allowed McDaniel to serve as a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention and members of the clergy have served in the Tennessee General Assembly ever since. (Link to US Supreme Court Decision in McDaniel v. Paty)

Nothing else is included in the proposed Amendment. However, it is interesting to look at section 2 of Article 9, which says, “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards or punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.” Given the decision in McDaniel v. Paty, questions remain if this provision would likewise be unenforceable.

Continuing on to section 3 which is also not covered in the proposed amendment, states, “Any person who shall, after the adoption of this Constitution, fight a duel, or knowingly be the bearer of a challenge to fight a duel, or send or accept a challenge for that purpose, or be an aider or abettor in fighting a duel, shall be deprived of the right to hold any office of honor or profit in this state, and shall be punished otherwise, in such manner as the Legislature may prescribe.”

This proposed amendment removes the unconstitutional prohibition on excluding ministers from serving in the Tennessee General Assembly. However, the Amendment does not remove or alter the other prohibitions listed in Sections 2 and 3.

Your vote matters.

It’s critical that our community shows up to vote. Early voting is going on now through Thursday, November 3rd. Election Day is Tuesday, November 8th. For sample ballots and voting information, please visit: Election Commission – Knox County Tennessee Government

What’s All the Noise About?

City Council has received many reports concerning loud vehicle noise that is disturbing our downtown residents and businesses. Now to clarify, we aren’t talking about normal traffic noise or the typical sound one would expect in an active and vibrant downtown like we have in Knoxville. The reports concern intentionally loud engine and exhaust noise that is disturbing sleep and interrupting quality-of-life.   

Downtown Noise Camera Pilot Program

In response to resident input, a pilot program was launched in February 2022 that uses new technology in the form of a camera that specifically targets traffic sound by analyzing the level of sound a vehicle is producing and then takes a picture identifying the offending vehicle. The detector only recognizes engine and exhaust noise of a vehicle and does not consider music or even loud conversations. In fact, the algorithm used by the sound camera only registers noise above 86 decibels. For example, sound at 86 decibels is like standing next to or operating a gas-powered leaf blower. That’s not typical ambient background noise even for our active downtown atmosphere.

The results of the Downtown Traffic Noise Camera Pilot Program were reported to Council at our July 21, 2022 workshop. You can watch the workshop here on Knoxville Community Media. From the launch of the pilot program until July 12, 2022 there were 1,300 sound events above 86 decibels. The loudest events registered above 100 decibels which is the equivalent sound experienced attending a live rock concert. These events most often occurred in clusters at 8PM on Saturdays and 2AM on Sundays.

Analysis of the data produced by the pilot indicates the events above 86 decibels were caused by intentionally modified mufflers and not from typical sounds produced by a vehicle. It is important to note that Tennessee state law requires motor vehicles driven on any road to have a muffler that is in good working order and operation to prevent excessive or unusual noise and it is unlawful to use a muffler cutout. (See, TCA §55-9-202) Violations are considered a class C misdemeanor. The city of Knoxville’s ordinance in chapter 17, closely mirrors that of state law. (See, Section 17-383)

These results illustrate what our downtown residents and business owners have been telling Council about the traffic noise they are experiencing. The noise camera is cutting edge technology that can be an additional tool in our toolbox for reducing noise pollution. Ultimately this is a quality-of-life issue and we need to use all the tools at our disposal to maintain everyone’s enjoyment of our city. As I mentioned in the workshop, “increased traffic noise levels are not isolated to our downtown” and, if ultimately approved, this technology could eventually be deployed in other parts of our city.

The next step is to see if we can blend this new technology with our current ordinance regarding the intentional modification of vehicles to produce louder and disruptive engine and exhaust sounds. Remember, there was a time when red light cameras were on the cutting edge of technology too. Now, this technology issues almost 44,000 citations a year.

The Primary Results Are In…

Friends: Thank you for an incredible win tonight! I’m grateful to have received over 74% of the votes in today’s Primary Election and humbled by the level of bipartisan support this campaign has garnered. Since June 1st, I’ve walked 125.41 miles to meet with voters across District 2 and listen to what matters most to them. I look forward to taking this campaign city-wide and engaging with voters throughout Knoxville. I thoroughly enjoy my role on City Council and can’t wait to continue serving my hometown.

Special thanks to my team – Chris Barber, Jack Vaughan, Lisa Carroll, my wife Sarah and ALL of our wonderful volunteers for working tirelessly to knock doors, make calls and boost awareness of this campaign. Onward! #TeamRoberto


Knoxville’s Budget Debate: Fact vs. Fiction

Recently, there’s been some discussion about Knoxville’s debt and whether the city is responsible with your tax dollars. If you listen to some, you might start to question if Knoxville is experiencing an economic freefall coupled with an unfathomable budget shortfall. (Spoiler: These claims are false and intentionally misleading.) Ensuring that Knoxville is on a responsible fiscal path is one of the promises I made to you four years ago and something this City Council has worked hard to deliver. Before being sworn in, I committed myself to learning about the city’s budget and how to keep our city on a successful financial track. With all the disinformation swirling around, I want to take this opportunity to talk to you directly about Knoxville’s stable financial position.

The City of Knoxville has two mechanisms to provide long-term economic stability:

  1. Economic Stabilization Reserve – A resolution from City Council that requires 20% of the general fund to be held in reserve. In the 2021/2022 fiscal year that reserve fund = $50 million.
  2. Unassigned Fund Balance – In addition to the Stabilization Reserve, 5% of the general fund balance is reserved in the city’s unassigned fund balance as an internal finance policy, representing a portion of the general fund that has not been assigned, restricted or committed to any specific purpose. In simple terms, this is a fund that the city does not plan to spend, similar to a savings account. In the 2021/2022 fiscal year this 5% = $13 million.

As a result of these two economic stabilization mechanisms, Knoxville has $63 million in reserves for FY2021/2022.

Having these stabilization mechanisms in place has allowed our city to maintain a AAA bond rating, which is similar to possessing a very good credit score. In fact, our strong bond rating allowed the city to refinance some of our long-term obligations and save taxpayers $5.4 million in 2020 alone.

Next, let’s examine the city’s debt. The city’s current total debt is $173 million. That’s down from a high of $261 million back in 2004. Over the time to date that I have served on City Council, the city has reduced the debt by almost $56 million. A Moody’s Sector Profile on Knoxville from May 2021 (graph below) analyzed Knoxville’s debt burden as compared to the local government’s tax base. This report revealed that Knoxville’s net direct debt as a percentage of full value has decreased and is below the 2019 median for all U.S. cities.

(Source: Moody’s Sector Profile (Cities & Counties) dated May 10, 2021 & Moody’s Municipal Financial Ratio Analysis database.)

The largest single line item of debt is, of course, the Knoxville Convention Center which is being paid off ahead of schedule, and is down to $80 million, with more than $24 million paid off in the last four years.

Another area to consider when measuring Knoxville’s fiscal health is pension obligations. Our city attracts and retains good public servants through a variety of incentives, including pensions. However, an underfunded pension is bad for workers and is a drag on a city’s overall economic health. Knoxville updated the city pension back in 2013 and plan H is fully funded. Plans A, B, C, F, and G are legacy pensions, and as of 2020, are 77% fully funded. The 2021 update will be available in October and is predicted to indicate that legacy pension plans are 80% funded. The unfunded portion of the pension is drawn down by about $20 million per year and is scheduled to be fully funded in 2037. By comparison, Knoxville’s responsible pension approach is the envy of other municipalities. For example, Chattanooga Fire and Police is only 49.9% funded, while Nashville and Memphis are responsible for multiple plans which range from 0% to 60% funded.

Knoxville’s fiscal position is strong and continuing to flourish. I am proud to be a part of a City Council that manages your tax dollars responsibly. I will continue to work hard to keep Knoxville on this responsible path and protect your trust. I am committed to continuing our work together; to reach out, listen, build bridges, and continuing the work you hired me to do.

Continuing Our Work Together: Why I’m Running for Re-Election

In 2017, you hired me to represent the second district and all of Knoxville on City Council. Since then, I have worked hard to learn the job and effectively harness that knowledge and experience to connect citizens with much needed resources throughout our community.

Together we have made progress, but our story is still being written and I believe there is more for us to expect from our future. -AR

Over the past four years, I have been a neighborhood advocate, a champion for a more walkable and beautiful community, a supporter of a clean and healthy environment, an advocate for affordable housing and permanent supportive housing, a proponent for responsible public safety, worked to build community bridges, pursued policies to reduce underage beer service, and championed economic development and job growth. I’ve updated my website and welcome you to visit the accomplishments page to see some of the specific ways that we’ve made progress together.

Together we have made progress, but our story is still being written and I believe there is more for us to expect from our future. That is why I picked up a petition on Monday, March 22nd to launch this campaign. I am excited to continue to serve you on City Council, because the job isn’t finished yet and my experience as an effective member of City Council will allow us to meet the challenges of the next four years. We’ve been through a lot together. You know me — you know how hard I work for you and for Knoxville. You know my record — let’s continue our work to build a better future together!

To learn more:

Health Board Abolished; Resurrected After Pandemic

Although this headline seems like it’s from today, it was actually appropriate a century ago. In 1907, the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, led by the Knoxville Delegation brought and passed a law entitled “An Act to Amend the charter of the city of Knoxville, Tenn., being Chapter 207 of the Acts of 1907 of the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee and all Acts amendatory thereof.”

This Act transformed the City of Knoxville’s government and replaced the powers of the Mayor, the Board of Alderman, and the Board of Health, among others. All powers were then transferred to a newly created Board of Commissioners. The Act went into effect on December 30, 1911.

Special thanks to our City Council Staff and Angela Hopper for locating this Ordinance.

Image: Looking north on Gay Street towards the Farragut Hotel, 1919
(Source: McClung Historical Collection)

As a consequence of the 1907 Act referenced above, the Board of Health was abolished effective December 30, 1911. After the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Knoxville Board of Commissioners brought back the Board of Health of the City of Knoxville in 1919. In fact, the original language of the ordinance restoring the Department of Health was to take effect in 17 days, but that section has a line drawn through it and hand written above the ordinance we see “immediately” inscribed. Taken together in all, the hand written amendments could be interpreted as an indication of a sense of urgency from our past legislators’ concern for public safety.

One reason why this headline seems like a current event and not one from Knoxville’s past is that HB0007 was introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly in November 2020. The bill “specifies that the county mayor has the authority to establish and implement health policies that affect the entire county during a county-wide health emergency; directs the county health director, health officer, and health board to provide advice to the mayor to develop polices.” You can follow the bill’s progress here. The bill would strip local Heath Boards of their powers and transfer them to the County Mayor.

In December 2020, Knox County Commission voted on Ordinance O-20-12-101 which would remove powers from Knox County Board of Health by a 6 to 4 vote with one abstention. The vote on the ordinance was only the first of two required votes to pass County Commission and would remove the board’s ability to create polices and alter the Board’s authority to advisory only. The second, and final, vote on this change could come as early as Monday, January 25, 2021. You can explore the language of the Knox County Commission ordinance here.

It is important to draw on our history to better understand our current challenges. Since March 2020, there have been more than 40,000 local infections and sadly we’ve lost 431 of our neighbors to COVID-19. I implore my colleagues on Knox County Commission to vote no on this proposed Ordinance, stripping the Knox County Board of Health of its powers. Now is the time to unite and act judiciously on behalf of our community. History will remember what we do today – I support Knox County’s Board of Health and call on you to do the same.

Institutional Sign Standards and Why It Matters to Neighborhoods

On Tuesday, October 20th, City Council will consider a freestanding sign standard proposal for the Institutional District (INST) that offers a comprehensive resolution to size, height, and illumination of signs in that District. This proposal was created through a collaborative effort of neighborhood and community organizations and was considered by Planning Commission at the their September 10, 2020 meeting.

A Brief History of Council’s Action:

Members of City Council and the public have expressed a desire to participate in determining appropriate sign requirements in the Institutional District (INST) through Council’s legislative process. This interest began when the newly created Institutional District (INST) was drafted at first without any sign standards. When the public and members of Council raised this issue, the Institutional District (INST) was then given the same standards as Commercial and Industrial Districts by the consultants. It is important to note that there are no Commercial or Industrial uses in the Institutional District and the Institutional District is the only Special Purpose and Overlay District without its own freestanding sign standards.

Prior to the passage of a new zoning ordinance on August 13, 2019, Council was assured that sign standards would be provided for Council’s approval before the new ordinance went into effect. When no action was taken, Council, through a Resolution passed on September 24, 2019, requested that Planning Commission consider and make a recommendation to City Council regarding sign standards in the Institutional District. As 2019 was drawing to a close and without a proposal to consider, Council then issued a 120 Day Moratorium on signs in the Institutional District on December 17, 2019. In Spring of 2020, a proposal was still not produced so Council issued a 90 Day Moratorium on signs in the Institutional District on April 21, 2020.

In an effort to move the legislative process along, Council held a workshop on July 9, 2020, where Council again expressed a continued desire to participate in the legislative process and the need for additional options.

A Comprehensive Approach is Preferable:

The option for a free-standing sign standard in the Institutional District (INST) is a preferable option as it addresses not only the illumination of signs, but the type of signs permitted, and the size of permitted signs. Further, as private offices are allowed in the Institutional District, passing this option is preferable as it closes a potential loop-hole where an office use could be allowed to have commercial or industrial signs which would otherwise not be permitted in the Office District (O). Finally, this option is preferable as it provides appropriate sign standards for all uses in the District while insuring needed sign flexibility for healthcare facilities with an emergency room through a master sign plan.

The Institutional District Isn’t Just for a Campus-Like Setting:

One argument that Council has heard several times is that signs in the Institutional District should not be a concern because the District is limited to an area of 5 contiguous acres and is for large “campus-like settings.” The assumption is that since there are not many properties that could meet this very narrow threshold, Council should not be concerned about future rezonings to the Institutional District. This point was made specifically by Planning Staff in comments and recommendations to the Stakeholder Advisory Committee on April 22, 2019 and to Council many times. However, Section 8.2 of the current zoning ordinance is clear that the Institutional District is to have a minimum size of five contiguous acres but may be composed of lots of various sizes with a minimum lot size of less than half an acre. It’s important to note that when efforts to fully address concerns in the Institutional District were unsuccessful during the zoning ordinance update, the word “contiguous” was added by Council to offer some protection from the sign standards as drafted.

This means that a composition of 20,000 square foot lots, with different owners and therefore not a unified or campus-like setting, may be rezoned to Institutional District so long as the lots meet the contiguous five-acre requirement. The 5-acre argument therefore gives little comfort as our city’s sign standards are based on lots and not area, meaning that each lot, not each 5-acre area, has its own individually allowable signs.

Illumination Isn’t the Only Issue:

Sign standards in the Institutional District allow for internally illuminated signs as well as dramatically different sizes and types of signs which are more appropriate for commercial and industrial uses. Currently, in each lot zoned Institutional District you can have pole signs in addition to monument or column signs. The maximum height of detached signs can be up to 35 feet and 220 square feet in size down to 10 feet tall and 100 square feet in size. After considering that signs are based on lots and not area as discussed above, imagine the potential sign clutter from 10 contiguous half acre lots with at least one 10-foot-tall pole sign that is 100 square feet on each individual lot.

The difference between commercial and industrial signs and non-commercial signs is dramatic when we consider that in the Office District only monument and column signs with a maximum height of 6 feet and a 36 square foot sign area are permitted. Further, there are no permitted internally illuminated signs in the Office District.

Given the uses available in the Institutional District (INST), including broadcasting facility, community center, educational facility, public safety facility, and healthcare facility, it was important to provide more flexibility in the type and size of permitted signs in the District. As such, the proposal is more generous than the Office District (O) but not as generous as the signs allowed in Commercial or Industrial Districts. The proposal allows for signs from 6 feet to 15 feet in height and from 36 square feet to 65 square feet based on the roadway type adjacent to the property. Further, the type of sign is limited to monument and column signs and there is an option allowing healthcare facilities with an emergency room to internally illuminate their signs.

When considering the type, size, and illumination of signs available currently in the Institutional District, it is easy to see why many are concerned and want to see a comprehensive approach to sign standards in the District. Knoxville-Knox County Planning staff selected the current location of Institutional Districts, many of which were formerly Office or even Residential Districts. As described above, a future rezoning of ten contiguous half-acre lots could bring Commercial and Industrial signs outside of those pre-determined sites. Therefore, the time to provide comprehensive sign standards is before any new signs go up and before a rezoning is initiated, because once a sign is constructed it will be with us for a very long time.

Council’s Legislative Process:

In 2015, Council used its legislative process to create the sign ordinance and five years later this Council has through previous comments in the July 9th workshop, support for both moratoriums, and the September 2019 resolution expressed a commitment to take similar action today. Only a freestanding sign standard for the Institutional District, just like the other Special Purpose and Overlay Districts in Article 8 of the current zoning ordinance, can resolve size, type, and illumination of signs in the District. This amendment proposal will be the 4th attempt by Council to address this issue. After all the interest and action taken in this debate, I am glad that Council will now be able to consider an option for comprehensive sign standards in the Institutional District.