The planning deficit iceberg

The planning deficit iceberg

March 13th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Members of the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors who on Monday denounced the county school board's rezoning plan for the new and overcrowded East Hamilton Middle/High School board are wrongly focused on just one result of a larger problem. They shouldn't be blaming school board members for dealing with the hand they've been given. The blame for unplanned growth and inadequate urban services -- from schools to sewers, to police and professional fire services, to roads, parks and garbage service -- belongs to the County Commission. These inadequacies are all part and parcel of the same large problem.

Despite all warnings, county commissioners have long refused to undertake cohesive land-use planning in the unincorporated areas of the county. They also have refused to pursue charter government powers and to establish a long-term plan for equitably funded and reasonably consolidated urban services, including classrooms.

Meanwhile, the community's long-sought industrial and job growth has finally arrived. And it's landed in the eastern part of the county past Hamilton Place's shopping and restaurants, and in the vicinity of Volkswagen and its supplier plants, Amazon and other newcomers, and Wacker Chemical's giant growth anvil in neighboring Bradley County. This development has barely begun, but it already has spurred precisely the sort of rapid residential and commercial growth, road widening and infrastructure rebuilding, that planning advocates have predicted for years.

It's too bad that county commissioners have chosen for so many years to wear blinders to the need for planning to mitigate the problems of sharp growth, which always require infrastructure planning and investment, and is never free.

But commissioners have worn blinders, and deliberately so. They need only recall former County Mayor Claude Ramsey's "Education Summit" report, which Ramsey issued on May 17, 2004, after a year of public study, and 13 community meetings attended by 1,500 residents. Over 8,000 county residents submitted written surveys on school and community growth concerns. The report recommended a " 'lock box' of capital improvements funds that would be used only to maintain and upgrade school buildings and facilities."

On a 5-4 vote that year led by Commissioner Fred Skillern, the commission voted down a proposed 55-cent county property tax increase to fund the capital improvement account. A less comprehensive facilities plan followed it several years later, but commissioners have always failed to adequately fund school growth.

They have also refused to consider consolidating core urban services with the city of Chattanooga to provide more comprehensive infrastructure development at a lower countywide per-capita cost. And they have refused to consider imposing an impact fee on developers in the unincorporated areas to mitigate the additional cost of infrastructure for developments that are deliberately built outside the city of Chattanooga to take advantage of lower county taxes -- rates that are kept artificially low because county government officials will not plan for needed infrastructure to service the undertaxed growth outside of municipal boundaries.

Planning advocates have warned for many years that the county government needs to come to grips with the issue of unbridled, unguided growth. The consequences are upon us. Realtors shouldn't blame the school board. They are complicit, with developers, in steering residential growth to unincorporated areas of the county. They should direct their gripes to the County Commission, and demand, at last, reasonable growth planning and consolidated urban services adequately funded by the countywide property tax base.