When it comes to city planning, East Ridge is going independent.
The city no longer will rely on the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission to weigh in on its city planning decisions after the City Council voted Thursday night to form its own planning commission.
The sudden vote came after the Regional Planning Commission decided Monday to defer action for 60 days on a proposed ordinance setting out building codes for East Ridge fireworks retailers. East Ridge Mayor Brent Lambert described the Regional Planning Commission’s move as “obstructionist.”
“We have no elected representation on the commission, and we just felt like we didn’t have a voice,” he said. “The move seemed very political.”
During the Regional Planning Commission’s vote, several members insinuated that they would try to indefinitely delay action on the fireworks ordinance to discourage sales.
“I don’t know if they’re misunderstanding that the state Legislature has already passed this law allowing the city to do this,” Lambert said. “We need to go ahead and set codes in place. We don’t just want people selling fireworks out of their vans at the grocery store.”
Earlier this year, Tennessee legislators approved fireworks sales for East Ridge starting July 1, 2012.
State law mandates that, before a city can change zoning laws or define building codes — such as rules for fireworks retailers — a city planning agency must research and review the data and a commission must vote on recommendations.
“Forming their own agency gives them more control over the city planning and zoning,” said Ron Darden, municipal management consultant with the Municipal Technical Advisory Service at the University of Tennessee, who consults for cities in Hamilton County.
Other Hamilton County cities, including Signal Mountain, Red Bank and Collegedale, already have their own planning commissions.
For cities, the advantage to relying on a regional planning agency is that it saves money and time, Darden said.
East Ridge can hire its own city planner, work with another planning agency such as the Southeast Tennessee Development District or go through the Regional Planning Agency, though it could now cost them a fee, City Manager Tim Gobble said.
The city will not lose any funding by going out on its own, Gobble said, but it will likely have to budget extra dollars for city planning.
East Ridge plans to allow fireworks sales at Exit 1 off Interstate 75 and in the Ringgold Road corridor, areas that Regional Planning Commission member Tim Boyd said are too densely populated to allow the sale of what he calls “explosives, not fireworks.”
“If the leaders of East Ridge want to circumvent the planning commission, I don’t think that’s good for Hamilton County,” said Boyd, who also is a county commissioner.
Boyd said he pushed to defer the fireworks measure because he wasn’t satisfied with the safety codes recommended by the planning agency. He said he also was concerned that East Ridge officials were “focusing only on sales tax dollars,” not safety.
“Who wants to live in an area and have their kids riding in front of a retail store selling explosives?” said Boyd, who lives in East Ridge.
East Ridge City Manager Tim Gobble objected.
“The ordinance is actually more stringent than what is actually in national codes for fireworks retailers,” he said.
Gobble said the city wants to follow recommendations made by the Regional Planning Agency researchers, which suggested fireworks must be sold out of permanent structures equipped with sprinkler systems and set away from other buildings at a distance determined by fire inspectors.
The city has no regulations for fireworks retailers, which is why Gobble said it needs to approve codes before building starts.
The council will vote Aug. 25 on a second reading of the ordinance to form the municipal planning agency, and then will appoint members to the five-person commission.
“That’s their decision,” said Boyd. “But they’re going to have to sleep with it if there’s ever an accident that hurts someone.”