Weak vision threatens future

Weak vision threatens future

December 21st, 2011 in Opinion Times

Mayor Ron Littlefield's proposal to reopen the countywide growth boundary agreement might have fared better if the mayor had been able to attend the meeting last week that he had requested. As it happened, he was in Germany at the time. The group of officials who attended heard a brief pitch by the mayor's top aide, Dan Johnson, on the need for a renewed initiative on growth planning and urban boundaries, and then they promptly slammed the door shut on the idea with quick 12-5 vote.

Their rapid-fire rebuttal to the need for consolidating some urban services and revisiting urban growth boundaries left little doubt that the majority of leaders here aren't interested at all in growth planning, orderly infrastructure development or tax equity for citizens in the county's 10 municipalities. They're obviously quite happy with the status quo, never mind the unmanaged sprawl and spotty urban infrastructure that looms on the horizon.

The county as a whole needs and deserves better leadership and a far higher level of vision.

The case for reopening the 2001 growth boundary agreement is transparent. Growth in the eastern side of the county beyond Hamilton Place, the Enterprise South industrial park and Volkswagen Drive is bound to mushroom over the next 10 years. Growth north of the city on both sides of the Tennessee River will explode, as well. Overall, the pending growth wave will far surpass the slow growth that was envisioned when the present urban growth boundaries were adopted.

The bulk of our looming growth will be residential, but commercial and industrial growth will come with it. Without consolidating core urban services for 24/7 fire protection, sewers and water utilities, and developing a comprehensive growth plan for classrooms, playgrounds, pedestrian ways and retail centers, new development will be patchy and ill-served. Indeed, much potential new development will look elsewhere for better planned sites, facilities, infrastructure and transportation networks.

It's unconscionable that our present civic leaders are so inclined to ignore the demands and consequences of the growth that is plainly on the horizon. Perhaps they believe that some cosmic force will intervene on their behalf to install sewers, plan for new schools, build logical road networks and commercial and retail clusters, and preserve the sort of greenspace and public facilities that maintain the quality of life that new residents and our children will desire.

In fact, there is no greater force than their own vision. The strength, or weakness, of that, will be revealed in short order. The absence of sound planning will drive away businesses that might otherwise come here on the synergistic effect of current industrial expansion. Alstom, Volkswagen and its suppliers and Amazon came here for a reason: They liked the ambiance, amenities, quality of life and, of course, the financial incentives that this area offered.

None of those will survive, however, if growth planning doesn't proceed, and tax equity isn't improved. Chattanooga residents account for half the county's population -- and they carry a highly disproportional cost of the infrastructure that moved Chattanooga to the top of the list for new development. If the city can't expand its urban boundaries in an orderly way to capture its natural tax base, and the proportion of free-riders in the unincorporated areas zooms, the infrastructure financing equation will crash -- unless the county begins to provided consolidated urban infrastructure on the countywide property tax base.

Unless and until this equation this equation is fixed, our county's growth and quality of life will be jeopardized. If municipal leaders here don't wake up and elevate their vision, Hamilton County, and this metro region, will suffer the cost of their neglect.

The growth boundary issue is part and parcel of the future we hope to have. Ignoring threatens that future.