After public outcry, the developer of a housing subdivision at 8209 Bell Mill Road has withdrawn a rezoning request for the 102-acre property, but GreenTech Homes will still move forward with plans to build 204 houses.
Rezoning the land from agricultural to residential would have enabled construction of about 300 houses, a proposal nearby residents feared would intensify already congested driving conditions in that area. The existing agricultural zoning allows 204 homes.
Mike Price, of MAP Engineers, is representing the developer, GreenTech Homes, and told Hamilton County commissioners Wednesday that job creation has spurred a strong need for housing. The panel was scheduled to vote on the rezoning Sept. 20, but the request was withdrawn during the commission's agenda review meeting Wednesday.
"I want my children, my grandchildren to have a place to work — and a great place to work — but they've got to have a place to live," Price said. "You can't have one without the other. What I'm seeing is an imbalance. People are coming out against subdivisions. We need them. We have to have them."
The withdrawal means the developer will not have to follow certain conditions to complete the project, Price said.
"I think it's the wrong move," Price told commissioners. "I regret that. I would hope in the future that commissioners will help try to bring communities together instead of letting this be an acrimonious situation. And that's what I found this one was. I did not feel there was an ability to be able to create a bridge here and have that conversation."
Developers had looked at improving the intersection at Bell Mill and Hunter roads if they or the county were able to obtain the land, Price said. The additional 100 homes would have made it financially feasible for the developer to make those upgrades.
GreenTech Homes still plans on widening the section of Bell Mill Road in front of the subdivision to a minimum 22 feet to meet fire codes, Price said, but the developer is not responsible for the remainder of the road.
Commissioner Steve Highlander, R-Ooltewah, represents that neighborhood and in late July proposed a temporary pause on rezonings along Hunter Road until officials could develop a comprehensive plan for the corridor.
Highlander ultimately pulled that request and instead partnered with Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp to launch a working group to study road needs in outlying areas.
Highlander said he appreciated the developer withdrawing the rezoning request, but he remains concerned about the viability of 204 homes near Bell Mill and Hunter roads. An official from the Tennessee Department of Transportation once told him Hunter Road has "more curves than a barrel of fish hooks," Highlander said.
"I want my grandchildren to be able to buy homes, Mike, in this community," he said, addressing Price. "I want them to. But I also want them to be safe and not die on the road. We need to find a happy medium. We need to build, but we need to build safely and responsibly."
Highlander also has issues with how officials determine the permissible density of housing projects. Because of flooding issues and a transmission line running through the land, a significant portion of the 102-acre property is not suitable for construction, he said, but the developer is able to calculate the allowable number of homes based on the total size of the tract rather than the buildable acreage.
"My chief concern is safety," Highlander said in an interview after the meeting. "There are major wrecks, a lot of injuries and Ooltewah High School has several hundred teenage drivers that go that road every day."
New property tax revenue from the project, Highlander added, would not be sufficient to support the development of new infrastructure.
Other members of the commission empathized with Price, prompting frustration from residents sitting in the audience. If builders aren't able to construct homes in Hamilton County, it's going to force county officials to raise taxes, Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista, told his colleagues.
"We keep hearing this argument about narrow roads," Mackey said. "They're in every district in every part of this county. Those people who put up that false premise — 'We'll put the infrastructure in first, put the roads in, put the bridges, put the schools in before we build' — that would put us in a position where we would never do anything."
Spending on infrastructure typically follows growth, said Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank.
"You can put committees together, you can make plans and present recommendations, but all of that stuff is fantasy unless there is revenue to support the investments needed to make those infrastructure projects," Sharpe said at the meeting. "You can't build a road on hopes and dreams alone."
Robert Hardin lives at the corner of Bell Mill Road and Mountain Pass Drive. Neighbors are not against growth, but it must be guided by a plan, he said.
"The challenge really is ... the speed at which growth is outpacing infrastructure," Hardin said in an interview. "It leads to safety issues, it leads to many other factors that impede the ability of the people that live there to enjoy what we have and get to where we need to go."
Bell Mill Road intersects with Hunter Road at a sharp angle, which proves difficult for big vehicles making a sharp right onto Bell Mill. Hardin's son uses a wheelchair, and for that reason, his wife drives a large SUV. His son's school bus driver has also had difficulty making that turn, Hardin said.
Gary Boles, another nearby resident, said he appreciated the withdrawal, but he did not appreciate the "grandstanding" by Sharpe, Mackey and Price.
"What they're trying to do is scare us," Boles said in an interview. "I didn't get a chance to make public comment because of the withdrawal, but they spent much time talking about why it should be done and (how) we're not allowing the county to grow and all that nonsense."