Blount County Commission, citing ‘alienated landowners,’ calls for a real public meeting on the Pellissippi Parkway Extension

Written by Lesli Bales-Sherrod

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Semantics aside, Blount County Commission calls for TDOT to hold another public hearing on controversial, $60-million roadway proposal

State highway officials will hold an in-person public meeting on the proposed Pellissippi Parkway extension at the behest of the Blount County Commission after the Tennessee Department of Transportation was criticized for the quality of the original, online-only meeting soliciting public input on the design of the controversial $60-million, 4.5-mile highway project.

The Blount County Commission voted 16-2 in June to “encourage” TDOT “to hold a publicly advertised, in-person hearing at a venue that accommodates a large crowd for public input regarding the extension of Pellissippi Parkway …”.

Here's some background on the Pellissippi extension project previously reported by Hellbender Press.

The commission resolution states that “Blount County landowners directly impacted by this extension feel they were alienated in the process.”

Transportation officials, however, told Hellbender Press that right of way acquisition would commence this year. It’s not clear to what extent public comment would impact that plan. A TDOT spokesman said previous comments had not yet been distilled to negative and positive input on the design process.

The resolution, sponsored by commissioners Nick Bright, Jeff Jopling and Steve Mikals, originally used the verb “urge,” but was amended to “encourage” after a motion by vice chairman Rick Carver passed 17-1, according to minutes of the meeting provided by the Blount County Mayor’s office.

“We did receive the letter from the Blount County Commission, and we do plan to follow up with an in-person public design meeting, in conjunction with the virtual meeting,” said Mark Nagi, TDOT community affairs director. 

“We are currently looking for a location and a date to hold that in-person meeting, but there is no timeframe right now,” he said by email.

“After all comments have been addressed, the department will begin finalizing the Right of Way plans for the project,” Nagi said. “Currently the department anticipates starting the Right of Way process for the project by late 2021 to early 2022 pending available funding.

The proposed 4.7-mile stretch of four-lane highway would lengthen State Route 162, known as Pellissippi Parkway, from where it ends at Old Knoxville Highway (State Route 33) to East Lamar Alexander Highway (State Route 73/U.S. 321) in Maryville. It would cross Old Knoxville Highway, and Wildwood, Brown School, Sevierville and Davis Ford roads along the way. The proposed improvements include completing the existing interchange at Old Knoxville Highway and constructing a new interchange at Sevierville Road (State Route 35/U.S. 411).

Opponents say the roadway is unnecessary and destructive. Detractors contend it would slice through farmland, fields and forests, displace homeowners and lead to urban sprawl at the very base of the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Local biologists said in previous Hellbender reporting that the parkway extension would endanger the water quality of Little River, which much of the county depends on for drinking water, and subsequently damage the remarkably diverse population of fishes such as darters and other aquatic life in the river.

TDOT held a “Virtual Public Design Meeting” open to the public for two weeks in April. A map, a handout and a “video flythrough” were linked from TDOT’s website in advance of the virtual meeting and are still online.

“Approximately 225-275 comments were received via the virtual meeting website and 100-150 comment cards were received during the 21-day comment period after the meeting closed on April 29, 2021,” Nagi said. 

“The department is still in the process of compiling, reviewing and addressing all the comments that have been received. Exact numbers on positive and negative feedback are not currently available.”

“Comments submitted through the project website will be addressed and become part of the official public transcript,” as will “written statements and other exhibits” submitted within 21 days after the meeting closed, according to the handout on the project.

The meeting to view the proposed design and provide feedback was held virtually because of COVID-19.

“... (T)he COVID-19 pandemic has presented the Department with some challenges on hosting public meetings,” Nagi told Hellbender Press earlier this year, noting TDOT was working with the Federal Highway Administration “to identify an acceptable method to hold public meetings that would meet federal requirements.”

Opponents of the Pellissippi Parkway extension lambasted the original virtual format of a public meeting for such a contentious project.

“This is a wholly inadequate platform for public learning and comment on the proposed new highway,” the nonprofit Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension wrote in a public response to TDOT published in The Daily Times on April 24. 

“The site is extremely confusing to navigate, assumes a degree of familiarity with digital communication that many residents do not have, ignores basic criteria for accessibility (visibility, manual dexterity, intuitive process, closed captions) in online communication and online access when we have a digital divide throughout Blount County regarding bandwidth and equipment. 

“CAPPE spent hours developing supplemental materials to guide our members through TDOT’s virtual meeting. TDOT should have waited until we can meet in person, have a public conversation and everyone could participate in the discussion.”

Nagi, of TDOT, noted that “The intent of the public design meeting was not to elicit feedback for support or opposition of the project, but to receive and discuss comments concerning the proposed design.”

That design includes two 12-foot travel lanes in each direction separated by a concrete median barrier wall, according to the project description provided by TDOT. 

The project also includes a greenway that would run parallel to the Pellissippi Parkway Extension between Wildwood Road and Sevierville Road. The proposed greenway would be constructed along Sevierville Road between the exit ramp of the Pellissippi Parkway Extension and Davis Ford Road as well.

Retaining walls would be constructed along the route to minimize impacts to adjacent properties. TDOT estimates the Pellissippi Parkway Extension would impact 56 properties, including 11 single-family relocations, six of which are within the Kensington Place mobile home community.

IMG 2454John and Susan Keller pose on their farm on East Brown School Road. Their property would be affected by the extension of Pellissippi Parkway. Lesli Bales-Sherrod /Hellbender Press

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    $20 million per mile: TDOT opens virtual-only comment on highly controversial roadway

    The Tennessee Department of Transportation has opened a virtual-only public comment period for the controversial Pellissippi Parkway extension, which would slice through the remaining rural areas of Blount County and move urban expansion and increased traffic flow ever closer to the Great Smoky Mountains, one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth.

    The public comment period began April 15 and will last until April 25. The project has generated controversy and lawsuits for at least two decades, but TDOT decided the comment period should be held virtually for only two weeks because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

    The project encompasses about four miles and will cost nearly $100 million. Opponents of the parkway say the extension is a waste of money and will destroy rural landscapes and wildlife habitat and pollute aquatic resources.

    Here's a link to a story about the Pellissippi Parkway extension published in February by Hellbender Press.

    According to The Daily Times,  which reported the public hearings on April 19:

    “'The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the department to look for alternate ways to engage and interact with the public,' TDOT spokesman Mark Nagi said in a video introducing the presentation, framed as a somewhat awkward-to-navigate virtual reality room.

    It includes a history of the project, a right of way acquisition process overview, a project design summary and a comments and questions section. A digitally generated flyover video of the planned extension shows intricate details of how the road may look once completed. 

    According to the TDOT website:

    The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) will host a Virtual Design public meeting from April 15, 2021, to April 29, 2021, to gather public input on the proposed project in Blount County on SR-162 Ext. (Pellissippi Parkway), from SR-33 to SR-73 (US-321).

    The virtual meeting was opened to the public at 8:00 am EST on April 15, 2021 and will close at 10:00 pm EST on April 29, 2021. The website link is:

    https://gather.cdmsmith.com/v/v8jkyAVO149.



    The proposed highway would require the acquisition of private property and extend through the Wildwood and Sam Houston areas to an abrupt terminus with East Lamar Alexander Parkway to the west of Walland, which is host to an increasing number of high-dollar hospitality attractions such as Blackberry Farm.

    Right-of-way acquisitions could start by the end of the year, according to The Daily Times.

    To the east of the proposed parkway's end is Townsend, which bills itself as the Peaceful Side of the Smokies.

  • Opponents of Pellissippi Parkway extension cite high cost, environmental damage and changing commuting habits
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    img 2460State and local officials want to expand another 'road to nowhere' by way of the controversial $200 million Pellissippi Parkway extension in Blount County.   Lesli Bales-Sherrod/Hellbender Press

    The newest road to nowhere

    The former “missing link” of the Foothills Parkway. The “road to nowhere” in Bryson City, North Carolina. Blount County, Tennessee, has its own unfinished road project, without the catchy nickname: the Pellissippi Parkway Extension.This proposed 4.4-mile stretch of four-lane highway would lengthen State Route 162, known as Pellissippi Parkway, from where it ends at Old Knoxville Highway (State Route 33) to East Lamar Alexander Highway (State Route 73/U.S. 321) in Maryville.

    The project, which would impact 56 properties and cost at least $60 million, is not without controversy. Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension, “believe(s) this interstate highway is not needed, wastes state resources and will have negative impacts on the area along the route and on the quality of life in Blount County as a whole,” according to the group’s website, saveitdontpaveit.org. Besides loss of farmland, residences and businesses, CAPPE’s concerns include sprawl, traffic, water and air quality, noise, economic impact and the destruction of wildlife habitat and increased rates of roadkill.

    State and local government officials, however, maintain the Pellissippi Parkway Extension will address needs such as “limited mobility options in Blount County and Maryville, poor local road network with substandard cross sections (with narrow lanes, sharp curves, and insufficient shoulders), lack of a northwest/east connection east of Alcoa and Maryville, safety issues on roadways in the area, and traffic congestion and poor levels of traffic operation on major arterial roads and intersections,” according to the Record of Decision signed by the Federal Highway Administration on Aug. 31, 2017.

    The Pellissippi Parkway Extension has been part of the Knoxville regional transportation planning vision since 1977, according to a 2010 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, and has a long, storied history -- complete with a 2002 lawsuit from CAPPE, seeking to stop it. Nothing has happened publicly, however, since the Record of Decision selected a preferred route for the new stretch of road, which would cross Old Knoxville Highway, Wildwood Road, Brown School Road, Sevierville Road and Davis Ford Road before terminating near Morning Star Baptist Church in Maryville.