Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Homes are undergoing construction on Tremont Street. The City Council passed a new measure on first reading aimed at putting more regulations building on steep slopes

The Chattanooga City Council on Tuesday passed a steep slopes measure aimed at protecting construction sites and homeowners, but the ordinance drew fire from builder and development groups.

The new rules, passed unanimously on first reading, identify a steep slope as anything above 30%. That figure was lowered from 33% after the panel passed an amendment brought by Councilman Jerry Mitchell to the proposed ordinance.

Also, the measure states that it allows for a vegetation program for ground covering, helps preserve existing established trees, and encourages native species.

Councilman Darrin Ledford said the ordinance also enables the city's Land Development Office to review a builder's landscape plan prior to issuing a permit to oversee steep slope projects.

"It creates a pathway to accommodate something that doesn't exist," he said. "I believe that is progress and a step forward for our city."

Ledford said that if the ordinance had been in place, it's possible some of the problems at building sites in the city's neighborhoods wouldn't have spurred earlier public outcry.

"I believe that is progress," he said.

Jim Johnson, founder of Chattanoogans for Responsible Development, said the ordinance is "better but it doesn't go at all far enough."

"When people see how little it actually accomplished, they'll still see the same things happening," he said.

Johnson said some municipalities in the state put a steep slope at 15% or 20%.

He said while the ordinance does provide a framework for the future, it doesn't address a lot of issues such a floodplains.

Doug Fisher, the Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga's executive officer, said the group is a bit disappointed in that the measure continues to add more regulations to the home building industry, but they'll accept it.

The amendment to move the grade down to 30% was "disheartening," he said.

"I'd like to ask the question of when you change something like that at the last moment and no one had the opportunity to do the mathematics, do we really know who, what or how much economics you've affected?" Fisher asked.

He already has said the proposed ordinance could add thousands of dollars to the cost of a typical new Chattanooga home.

In 2019, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency submitted a report on the steep slopes problem, proposing an array of new rules to limit land erosion and damage while trying to balance protection with private property rights.

The agency compared Chattanooga to cities such as Nashville, Knoxville, Asheville, North Carolina; Huntsville, Alabama, and others and found that the Scenic City has just two out of 22 similar zoning and subdivision regulations.

The report was driven by complaints the City Council heard earlier from residents worried about building taking place on slopes and floodplains. Neighborhoods such as North Chattanooga and St. Elmo especially voiced concerns over stormwater runoff, erosion control measures and aging infrastructure.

Ledford said legislation was discussed by the City Council for about a year. But he admitted that the ordinance only addresses two of 10 listed items in the agency's report — the definition of a steep slope and new vegetation and tree canopy standards.

"It doesn't address every item on the staff list, but does put a dent in it," Ledford said at a virtual meeting of the panel.

Johnson said the proposed ordinance still needs the panel's approval next week, and there's a new mayor and some City Council members coming on board.

"It's not over at this point," he said.

Fisher said he's disappointed at the ordinance and is sure "the other side" is, too.

"If we're likewise disappointed, it's probably pretty good legislation," he added.

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