Opinion: Hamilton County commissioners signal caution on growth in fast-developing Ooltewah

Staff File Photo by Matt Hamilton / Finished homes sit next to homes under construction on Highborne Lane in Ooltewah in June.

No one disputes that the eastern portion of Hamilton County is currently the county's biggest growth area. But residents of the area may have spoken through Hamilton County commissioners earlier this week in wanting a say about that growth.

At issue was a $50 million project by Jooma Development on Ooltewah-Georgetown Road that would have put 184 houses on 92 acres of land, precisely two per acre.

Many existing single-family homes in the area sit on an acre of land or more, so the proposal would have been much different from what's currently in place.

County commissioners turned down the proposal in a 6-3 vote.

In June, county commissioners had approved in a 5-4 vote a move to shrink lot sizes in the county from a minimum of 7,500 square feet to as small as 6,000 square feet on properties that have sewers.

The lots suggested in the Jooma Development proposal weren't as small as the permitted minimum size either before or after the change, but they prompted the same concerns about wastewater, traffic and emergency services that were voiced in the discussions about the smaller lot sizes earlier this year.

Dean Moorhouse, an Ooltewah resident and 2022 county commission candidate, spoke for concerned residents about higher density in the largely rural area.

In June, during the discussing about lot sizes, he said commissioners might rue the day they approved the smaller lots.

"Down the road, we may regret it," he said, adding there are "a handful [of developers] who aren't responsible" and that the shift takes future decisions related to home building out of the hands of government. "In Ooltewah, they're not screaming yet like [they are in] East Brainerd, but it's a matter of time."

In this week's discussion, the capacity of wastewater infrastructure was at issue.

The developer's plan would have used an on-site sewer system that allowed for smaller lot sizes. Asked for his opinion, Michael Patrick, executive director of the Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority, told commissioners it all depended on how such sewer systems were constructed.

"[County] Mayor [Jim] Coppinger and I have discussed this, and he is correct in his concern that, if not constructed properly, they can present a significant liability to the county and the [WWTA]," he said. "However, when constructed properly, they are an effective solution in areas where conventional wastewater treatment is cost-prohibitive."

In June, several commissioners talked about the lack of infrastructure in the fast-growing area.

Commissioner and now-county mayoral candidate Sabrena Smedley, who represents the East Brainerd area that previously saw the type of growth Ooltewah is now experiencing, mentioned traffic.

East Brainerd residents are "begging for help," she said. "We need help," she added, noting there are 1,100 existing approved lots in the pipeline. "People can't get to work."

Commissioner Steve Highlander, who represents the Ooltewah-Georgetown Road area where the development was proposed, said at the time the county "definitely needs road infrastructure. We need it yesterday."

"I'm for growth," he said. "I'm for responsible growth."

Again, though the Jooma Development wasn't building on the now-permitted smallest lots, votes on the lot-change size in June and the recent proposal came from different constituencies.

Republican commissioners Randy Fairbanks and Chip Baker, who represent areas on the other side of the Tennessee River, Republican Tim Boyd, who is not running for another term, and Democrats David Sharpe and Warren Mackey, who represent areas with slower growth, voted for the smaller lot sizes, while Republicans Smedley, Highlander and Greg Martin, and Democrat Katherlyn Geter voted against them.

In the Ooltewah proposal, the vote was straight down party lines, with Republicans Fairbanks, Baker, Martin, Smedley, Boyd and Highlander voting against the development and Democrats Sharpe, Mackey and Geter voting for it.

We don't know what was in the mind of each "no" voter, but we'd like to believe they have heard from county constituents who say they are fine with growth, fine with lot sizes that look similar to others in the area and fine with growth that comes with infrastructure to handle that growth, but they are not OK with growth that threatens their ability to move within their community, growth that significantly alters the look of their rural area and growth for growth's sake.