Plans for a 708-unit apartment complex off North Hickory Valley Road received criticism from neighbors during a meeting of the Hamilton County Commission on Wednesday, although a representative for the project said it would fill a need for housing in that area.
"This project is way too large," resident Jerri Underwood told commissioners. "I'm just telling you there are way too many unanswered questions. We are a single-family community, and we are in a safe environment, and we don't want this huge invasion of apartments to compromise the safety and well-being of our currently safe community."
Developer R.M. Investments LLC is asking the county to rezone 53.9 acres at 8699 N. Hickory Valley Road from rural residential to multi-family residential.
Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the request during their meeting next Wednesday, which would include the condition that the project have a maximum allowable density of 13 units per acre.
A website created by neighbors opposed to the project, 58neighbors.com, includes a petition that had garnered 739 signatures by Wednesday afternoon. It details concerns about safety, traffic congestion and the effect the complex would have on the surrounding community. Residents also pointed out Wednesday that the project sits near the future site of an approximately 160-unit townhome development.
Michael Price, owner of MAP Engineers, told commissioners Wednesday that the typical density for an apartment complex is 18-22 units per acre, larger than the amount proposed.
The developer self-imposed a limit of 13 units per acre in order to ensure there was plenty of available green space, Price said, and has boosted landscape buffering around the project beyond minimum requirements.
Price added that a traffic study has been submitted to county staff for review. That study indicated there would need to be the addition of a dual left turn lane out of North Hickory Valley Road and a left-turn storage bay for northbound traffic on Highway 58, which would provide access to the development. There may also need to be adjustments to signal timing to help mitigate congestion, he said.
The Regional Planning Agency estimated the project would generate 5,182 additional vehicle trips per day on North Hickory Valley Road.
"I think the issue that certainly needs to be addressed is traffic," Price said. "No arguments there, but as it relates to the appropriateness, the location and the approximate number of units that is going in and given that it is far less than what could go in, this is a good plan in an area in need of housing."
Residents also raised safety concerns about a gas pipeline that runs across the property, which they argued is not at a service level suitable for densely populated areas. Price said he deals with gas lines on a regular basis and submits plans to gas companies for their evaluation. He added that those undergo a thorough, engineered review.
"Prior to beginning work, they review the plans and must approve it," Price said. "So if it's good enough for the gas company who maintains and operates it, I believe the safety concern has been addressed."
Underwood said she and other community members are concerned that there hasn't been the necessary due diligence to alleviate concerns about engineering and the impact the project would have on schools, potential emergency evacuations and the environment.
"We think this is short-sighted, poorly planned," she concluded. "A project of this magnitude needs the full attention of the commission, and the volume will densely populate an area that's already crowded in terms of traffic, schools, understaffed fire and police and emergency departments. We're not ready for this volume."
Commissioner Steve Highlander, R-Ooltewah, also shared reservations about the gas line and traffic. He noted that the project would add traffic to a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Tennessee River.
"There are two small twisting, turning two-lane roads that come out of that peninsula for several thousand residents already there," he said. "They are also on the Sequoyah evacuation route, and you do not realize by water how close you are to the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.
"All my years in the school system, we had nuclear evacuation plans. There is one for that, but can you imagine what 5,000 more vehicles would do to that evacuation? The people would be frightened. They would not be able to get out."
Robert Hadland, who lives next to the proposed development, said his wife is a teacher, and he has two children in Hamilton County Schools.
"Getting my kids to school this morning was pretty difficult, even with the traffic situation that we have now," he said.