By the thinnest of margins, a move to shrink lot sizes for new single-family homes and boost density in future subdivisions was approved Wednesday by the Hamilton County Commission.
The 5-4 vote by commissioners was applauded by developers and building groups and criticized by some citizens already grappling with clogged roads and over-development in some parts of the county.
Doug Fisher, the Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga's executive officer, said the change will help supply more workforce-affordable housing.
"We've done a tremendous job recruiting new industry," he said. "We're bringing in employees who have no place to live."
But Dean Moorhouse of Ooltewah said he was surprised at the vote because the change isn't needed.
"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 East Brainerd, but it's a matter of time."
The move affects just the county and not the city of Chattanooga. Fisher said he expects a similar package of changes will go before the city's consideration probably by year's end.
Under new R-1 Residential zoning for homes after July 1, lot sizes can go from 7,500 square feet to as small as 6,000 square feet on those properties that have sewers.
Also, front and back setbacks of houses can be reduced from 25 feet to 20.
County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley, who voted against the measure, said she plans to ask the other panel members to "take a field trip" to the East Brainerd area after school begins to show them the badly congested roads at peak times.
Smedley said she'd like to invite Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to go along as well.
East Brainerd residents are "begging for help. We need help," she said, noting there are 1,100 existing approved lots in the pipeline. "People can't get to work."
Commissioner David Sharpe, who voted for the change, said he understands the concerns of the community and Smedley.
"I hear you. I feel you," he said. "I hope the governor does come down here."
But Sharpe said a way to afford better roads and schools is through more density.
Commissioner Warren Mackey, who also voted in favor of the new regulations, said the current situation was driving growth out of Hamilton County.
"You can't say no to every growth opportunity," he said. "Bradley County and North Georgia are laughing at us."
Commissioner Steve Highlander, who cast a no vote, said the county "definitely needs road infrastructure. We need it yesterday."
"I'm for growth. I'm for responsible growth," he said.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the state has $300 million in contracts that have been let to improve roads.
"I understand the conversation. Traffic isn't moving quickly [in East Brainerd]," he said, adding the county requires developers to put in roads in new subdivisions.
Coppinger said that while roads are an issue, he warned commissioners to not imply there's an infrastructure problem in the county.
"You'll run people off," he said. "You'll run business off. It's easy to be emotional. Let's be factual. It's not infrastructure, it's a roads problem."
Darlene Brown, owner of the firm Real Estate Partners in Chattanooga, said there is a shortage of listings for homes in Hamilton County compared to prior years.
She said there are only 471 single-family homes now listed, compared to 2,050 a year ago and 3,030 two years ago.
"I've never seen the market like it is today - good and bad," Brown said.
She said many people are choosing to live in Tennessee and shopping around the state.
"Chattanooga has beat out big cities, but it's not happening anymore," Brown said.
Alan Hintz, also of Ooltewah, spoke against the new regulations, saying he believes in more growth though it needs to be done wisely.
More density will require added infrastructure changes, he said, and he urged commissioners to get ahead of the issue.
But Fisher said that development doesn't follow infrastructure. He said it's the other way around in the real world.
Smedley said that "we've had all the growth, now we need the infrastructure."
Commissioner Tim Boyd, who voted for the changes, urged people to "hold elected officials' feet to the fire" when it comes to fixing infrastructure issues.
"It's not developers creating infrastructure issues. They're trying to meet demand," he said.
Also voting yes for the new regulations were Commissioners Randy Fairbanks and Chip Baker. Also voting no were Katherlyn Geter and Greg Martin.
Contact Mike Pare at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.