A reach for smart growth

A reach for smart growth

October 19th, 2011 in Opinion Times

It shouldn't be hard, or controversial, to set about creating a new countywide urban growth plan for the next decade, and beyond. Hamilton County may get just one bite at the ripening economic apple that now hangs before us, so that work is essential.

In fact, to make the most of our current growth opportunities and sustain the economic momentum now in our hands, it will be imperative to assure smart, orderly growth to cope with Hamilton County's pending wave of commercial and residential development.

The greener, more organized and more sensitive our growth is to quality of life and the efficiency and aesthetics of our built environment, the greater the return will be in new investment, formation of capital, quality jobs, high tech innovation and next-level opportunities. This opportunity should not be squandered.

But go tell it to the County Commission. Its members have dodged the need for creation of a charter county government capable of providing countywide urban services. They have rejected consideration of cost-efficient consolidation of major urban services with the city. And now they're only begrudgingly backing up to Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's latest proposal, an update of the county's 2001 state-mandated growth-boundary agreement among the county's 10 municipalities and the County Commission.

The state's 1998 growth planning law designates the county's various mayors and leaders of its largest utilities and the largest Chamber of Commerce are designated as members of the coordinating committee charged with updating new urban growth boundaries if a member requests an update of areas that may be annexed. The county mayor is required to reconvene the coordinating committee within 60 days upon a member's request.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger, however, wrongly required Littlefield on Monday to submit a specific proposal for an urban growth-boundary amendment before he would he meet his statutory duty to reconvene the growth boundary coordinating committee.

Leading up to that point, Commissioner Fred Skillern denigrated both Littlefield and his proposal, further embellishing his myopic view that the only county residents worth his consideration are those who reside in unincorporated areas or his home community of Soddy-Daisy. Never mind Littlefield's position as the leader of half the county's population and the city's vital role in the 24-7 infrastructure and urban amenities that attract and support the region's new growth.

Similarly, Commissioner Chester Bankston gave his knee-jerk support to an anti-city group's vision of creating an 11th municipality in Hamilton County. The group's goal, according to its president, Chris Matthews, is to avoid the distant possibility of annexation by the city and the fair burden of sharing in the tax base the city needs (absent the county's reluctance to provide urban services) to support the infrastructure we all require for jobs, shopping and the city's renaissance downtown appeal.

Ironically, Matthews' proposed town, "Hamilton," would lie outside even the amended urban-boundary growth plan that Littlefield suggested Tuesday as a starting point for a new urban-growth plan. Hamilton, if it ever gets off the ground (and it shouldn't), would have a large swath of sparsely populated land whose residents would have to bear a pretty hefty tax just to take care of the road, fire and police services the town would have to provide once it incorporated.

The bare-bones proposal Littlefield gave Coppinger Tuesday "for discussion" of an expanded urban-growth boundary would reach 1,000 feet north of State Route 312 (Mahan Gap Road, Harrison Pike, Snow Hill and Birchwood Pike) and extend northward and westward parallel to the row of those roads from the Bradley County line to Chickamauga Lake. It would encompass all lands south of that line not now in the growth boundaries of Chattanooga and Collegedale.

North of the Tennessee River, Chattanooga's suggested growth boundary would "generally follow" Sequoyah Access Road to Soddy-Daisy and include all land south of Soddy-Daisy and Lakesite. That would encompass Middle Valley, which should have been annexed years ago.

New growth boundaries are necessary to bring some order and planning vision as the anticipated growth of the next decade takes roots. It's plainly more sensible, after all, to plan ahead for the cost-efficient installation of infrastructure and orderly growth, than to stumble along blindly without a road map and end up with needless congestion and sprawl -- without adequate sewers and streets, schools and firehalls, ballfields and parks, and well-placed commercial hubs.

Convincing county commissioners and residents in the path of growth that planning is better than no planning has traditionally proven hard here. It's past time for that to change. Tax-equity and fair burden-sharing for infrastructure for growth, and the jobs it brings for all, require a more united effort. County officials residents of unincorporated areas need to recognize that.