published Thursday, August 28th, 2014

Chattanooga's Stormwater Regulations Board pulls back on stiff rules

Mike Price is seen in this file photo.
Mike Price is seen in this file photo.
Jessica Lowry

A Chattanooga regulatory board on Wednesday flushed two years of work on how better to stop raw sewage from pouring into the Tennessee River when it rains.

Under pressure from developers who argued that proposed stormwater requirements could slow growth in the Scenic City, the Stormwater Regulations Board voted 5-3 to recommend that the city pull back from an ambitious plan aimed at saving the environment and bolstering Chattanooga's position as a green city and instead follow minimum state environmental requirements for stormwater permits.

The recommendation -- which will need City Council approval -- essentially ignores two years of efforts toward better compliance with state regulations and incentives to help developers, said board Chairman Doug Stein.

"I think [developers] gave up more than they gained," Stein said.

But Mike Price, owner of MAP Engineers, said the extra requirements could have driven developers to build outside Chattanooga, in the unincorporated part of Hamilton County or beyond.

"If you develop inside the city it will cost you more, no ifs, ands or buts," Price told the stormwater board Wednesday.

The board has been working to craft language incorporating requirements of the city's 2010 stormwater permit into city code.

The basic rule is that builders of new developments and significant redevelopments have to make sure the first inch of rain stays on the property, instead of running off to adjacent properties -- and ultimately carrying pollutants from urban land and streets into the Tennessee River.

But City Engineer Bill Payne said the junked proposal went far beyond the state's base requirements. In one swoop, the city hoped to comply with multiple local environmental concerns including a $250 million federal consent decree handed down last year. The decree was meant to fix the city's decades-old combined sewer and stormwater system that can overflow with raw sewage in heavy rains.

The more stringent rules would have required developers within the low-lying South Chickamauga basin to collect 1.6 inches of rainwater because of flooding problems. Other requirements dictated that developers build 60- or 80-foot buffers for the rainwater on their property and meet other standards.

But at a special called meeting Wednesday, the board cut off public discussion after three speakers and board member Karl Sodergren, of Sodergren Energy, proposed stripping the rules to only the minimum state requirements.

Sodergren said he wasn't convinced that the more stringent requirements would help the city comply with multiple environmental regulations.

The 5-3 vote came after almost no discussion by board members.

The board's decision came three-and-a-half years after Chattanooga passed a new stormwater permit to comply with Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation requirements -- a process that was bitterly debated for months. But the state gave Chattanooga officials until this December to update the city code to enforce those requirements.

Payne said he and his staff still have to review how the board's decision affects the new stormwater rules for businesses and whether it eliminates incentives for developers.

The staff will also talk with Mayor Andy Berke's office to decide what to recommend to City Council for a final vote.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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