Regional planning a must

Regional planning a must

September 25th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Earlier this year, County Commission Chairman Larry Henry drew criticism for helping some friends contest purchase offers from state officials who are trying to buy land and rights-of-way to widen East Brainerd Road, which has been a seriously clogged artery for more than a decade.

More recently, the nearby East Hamilton Middle/High School, which was built for 1,650 students and has been overcrowded since it opened two years ago, began the new school year with an outsized complement of 2,100 students. So much for the flickering hope of relieving serious overcrowding at Ooltewah's other schools.

Henry's conflict of interest aside, both of these circumstances suggest just a glimmer of the growth problems -- for right-sized schools and roads, for adequate sewers, fire halls, parks, police stations, ballfields and mass transit -- that lie on the near horizon.

Indeed, growth is expected to soar in Hamilton County -- and in Bradley and adjacent counties as well -- in the wake of the burgeoning industrial development spurred by the arrival of Volkswagen, Alstom, Wacker Chemical, Amazon and related supplier and ancillary development. It has certainly begun to take root in the eastern side of Hamilton County closest to those plants.

Future growth is widely expected to far surpass any previous growth rate this county and the nearby region has ever experienced. Based on similar growth dynamics in other southern cities that have landed an automobile plant, Hamilton County alone may gain tens of thousands of new residents and hundreds of new businesses in the not-too-distant future.

Such growth logically suggests the need for comprehensive growth planning here and across the surrounding 15-county region. In fact, such planning should have been initiated more than three years ago, in July of 2008, when Volkswagen announced its decision to locate here.

Without competent planning, spontaneous growth, especially in the Hamilton County epicenter, is likely to produce a sprawling, uncoordinated mishmash of haphazard commercial development, heavy congestion with endless curb-cuts on overburdened corridors, undersized secondary roads, inadequate sewer and utility infrastructure, and crowded schools.

Ultimately, that would result in a needlessly costly do-over on the taxpayers' tab -- witness what's now happening in the East Brainerd/Ooltewah area -- in a tardy attempt to fix gaps in public services and to improve the amenities and quality of life that should have been envisioned before the growth curve soared.

Planned growth, by contrast, would promote orderly placement of efficient public infrastructure, smartly designed placement of commercial hubs, more desirable and stable neighborhoods, and, ultimately, higher land values for current and future property owners in what are now the county's undeveloped areas.

Unfortunately, planning for growth has lagged badly here. City, county and Chamber of Commerce officials did eventually get around to visiting cities, like Spartanburg, S.C., which have been struck by lightning growth and rapid sprawl. But it's only been in the past six months that local officials began seriously engaging their counterparts in nearby counties in discussions aimed at initiating a comprehensive regional growth plan to map out resource, education and transportation planning to meet the expected demands of new development.

Area officials have now developed an outline for growth planning and are ready to hire consultants to proceed with a plan involving Hamilton County and 15 surrounding counties in southeast Tennessee, north Georgia and Alabama. The city and county governments here, with the significant help of the Chamber and local foundations, have assembled $3 million for the planning initiative. They are now seeking a $2.5 million federal grant to complete funding of their share of a long-range 40-year growth plan that would coordinate transportation, resource and worker-education plans.

County Commissioners wrongly stalled last week on a resolution to give County Mayor Jim Coppinger authority to proceed with the grant application after Commissioner Fred Skillern raised unfounded objections. Contrary to his claim, the regional growth plan would not usurp the rights or zoning of current county land owners, nor it would dictate county-only land-use plans that would override the County Commission's authority over such planning.

The commission needs to grant approval by Sept. 30 for Coppinger to meet the county's prior commitment to apply for the grant. A last-chance meeting to consider granting him that authority is scheduled for Thursday. The commission should not block the application. Smart growth for the county's and the region's future is at stake.