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A Hamilton County planning panel Monday OK'd rezoning a large vacant parcel near Apison for new housing despite worries from area residents that the homes would overwhelm schools and roads.

Developer Barry Payne won approval to shift zoning from an agricultural to a residential district to allow the developer to put up to 800 single-family homes on the 321-acre tract around 3120 Bill Jones Road.

While the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission endorsed the zoning change, the Hamilton County Commission must give final approval when it meets next month.

Payne, who serves on the planning commission, didn't take part in the vote that divided the panel and went contrary to a recommendation by Regional Planning Agency staff that a decision be put off for 30 days for more study.

Mike Price of MAP Engineers, who supported Payne's request, said the project's proposed 2.5 units per acre density is the same as other housing developments in the area.

"Suburban residential is in keeping with the land-use plan" for the area, he told the panel.

Price said plans are to widen some roads, provide a 100-foot setback from Bill Jones Road and put in a decentralized sewer system.

He said that big area employers such as McKee Foods Corp. and Volkswagen are growing.

"It's not an agricultural community anymore," Price said.

However, more than a half dozen people who live the area spoke to the planning panel in opposition to the rezoning, including Hamilton County Trustee Bill Hullander, who said he owns property nearby.

Hullander expressed concerns the proposed sewer system wouldn't support the number of homes.

"We need more information about this sewer plan," he said. "We're going to smell it. You think cows will smell. This is the worst thing I've ever seen to come to my community."

Eddie Hernandez, who lives in the area, offered a petition signed by more than 200 people against the rezoning.

The new residents will "cause more stress in an already over-stressed system," he said about the schools.

"Where are the kids going to go to school?" he asked. "Build those first."

Regional Planning Agency staff said the Hamilton County Department of Education reported that Apison Elementary School already is at 100% capacity. The education department indicated that East Hamilton Middle School would reach capacity amid the new planned development, the staff said.

"This will harm our children's future," Hernandez said. "We're not anti-growth but for planned, intelligent growth."

Hamilton County Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley, who was in attendance and spoke to the planning panel, said the roads in the area are a problem. She said the second phase for widening East Brainerd Road is still many years away, and its intersection with Ooltewah-Ringgold Road is an issue.

"I've got concerns about the sewage," Smedley added.

Price said "help is coming" concerning road widening in the area that's already underway. He said the subdivision would likely take seven years to build out and he hoped the school system would make changes.

Price said the proposed decentralized sewer system is "the wave of the future" in places where sewer moratoriums exist.

"The only time a decentralized system would fail is if it's not installed correctly," Price said. He said the system would be put into place in stages and follow the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority guidelines.

However, County Commissioner Steve Highlander, who also serves on the planning panel, urged the planning board to look at the needs of the residents and suggested that the rezoning be deferred for more study.

"I'm not saying I'm against it," he said. "We need to have a complete understanding."

Planning commission member Chris Anderson said that subdivisions aren't built all at once but take years.

"I hear the problems," he said. "They're all legit."

But Anderson said the planning panel doesn't build roads or schools and isn't the water and wastewater treatment authority, and he made the motion to approve the rezoning.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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