Chattanooga may limit building heights

Chattanooga may limit building heights

May 26th, 2014 by Alex Green in Local Regional News

John Bridger, head of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Authority

John Bridger, head of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.


The Chattanooga City Council meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the council building, 1000 Lindsay St.

Seth Joyce likes being able to see the road from his Park Avenue house.

And he hopes his view stays this way. He bemoans the idea of a business coming along, snatching up the vacant lot at 860 McCallie Ave. and throwing up a brick wall in his face.

"If I wanted skyscrapers, I'd go buy a house over there," he said last week, pointing a finger downtown.

It's an issue the City Council is taking up at a meeting Tuesday: whether to amend height restrictions on high-density commercial buildings and structures that abut low-density residential zones.

Joyce's neighborhood, along East Eighth Street where shotgun housing meets the commercial properties of McCallie Avenue at residents' back doors, is one of a few places in Chattanooga where it's an issue.

Changing the code

The city's planning agency says it is trying to make height restrictions universal and cut out setback requirements for commercial developments next to residential areas.

As city code stands now, each case in which C-3 commercial construction meets R-1 or R-2 residential zoning has a height restriction subject to the distance from the commercial building to the residential property line.

In other words, every case presents a different height limitation.

And if a developer wants to exceed the distance, he must make variance requests. Each additional foot of building height granted requires the building to set another foot back from the residential property line. If a developer wants to build a 40-foot-tall commercial building next to a 30-foot-tall single-family home, the commercial building must be 50 feet away from the property line.

"Which doesn't encourage development," said John Bridger, executive director at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency. "It's actually more restrictive now, and what we're trying to do is create more flexibility."

The city's solution, then, is to amend the code and install permanent, fixed restrictions. For any commercial building on C-3 zoning next to R-1 or R-2 zoning, height is capped at two-and-a-half stories, or 35 feet, whichever is less. The variance setback rules are abolished.

And when C-3 zoning shares a side property line with R-4 special zoning (which can be either commercial or residential) any building on the C-3 side cannot exceed two stories taller than the shortest building on the R-4 side within 40 feet of the shared property line.

Cleaner, plainer rules, say planners.

And hopefully, the end of large setbacks that planning documents say "have created large spaces between buildings that are not conducive to a coherent streetscape and desired urban form."

Not everyone is convinced.

Some developers feel the height restriction hampers their property rights. They worry about decreased values on affected commercial properties and harm to their ability to profit off a commercial structure.

Barry Payne, planning commissioner and private developer, said the concerns are legitimate, but "you've got to weigh that with the rights of residents close by" who also have property rights.

The planning agency recommended the ordinance for approval earlier this month. Now it's in the hands of the City Council.

Last week was the first Seth Joyce had heard about any of this.

He's not an avid attendee of City Council meetings. But with an empty C-3 lot practically right on top of his house, he is reconsidering.

"I may have to go to that one," he said.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at or 423-757-6480.