When Obadiah Brooks moved to St. Elmo in 2010, there were still vacant lots and empty buildings near his home in the 5500 block of Alabama Avenue.
Then developers began building in the area a few years later and Brooks watched as seven new homes were built in the few blocks surrounding his house with several others planned for the future. He was excited to finally be getting some new neighbors, but as a new, two-story home was erected next to his 100-year-old house, Brooks began noticing myriad problems — a damaged sewer line, standing water in his yard, his basement flooding after heavy rains. He watched as contractors took down his fence to move it closer to his property line and didn't put a temporary fence up to replace it.
"Each little thing by itself seems kind of insignificant, but as a whole it is a lot," Brooks said. "I just feel bad for all the people moving in who don't realize they are moving into a controversy. I want to make them feel welcome."
Brooks is not alone in his development woes. On the north side of Chattanooga near the intersection of Dartmouth Street and Knickerbocker Avenue, Lindsey Woody said she has had to replace the hot-water heater and furnace in her home's basement because of the flooding that started once construction began on 77 new homes up the hill.
After just a 15-minute downpour, the water comes down the street and up her driveway like a "raging river," making it difficult to leave, she said.
"It's like nobody cares," Woody said. "Nobody is going to put the money into fixing it and eventually my house is just going to wash away. My house is 100 years old. I already have water problems and I don't need more water problems."
On Mountain Creek Road, high-density developments have caused flooding issues for residents who have lived in the neighborhood nearly 40 years.
From 2013-2018, nearly 44 percent, or 262 cases, of the 597 rezoning cases that came before the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency were for construction on steep slopes, which can lead to higher rates of stormwater runoff, increased risks of flooding and water pollution. Twenty-six percent of the cases were in floodplains and 13 percent were on both steep slopes and flood plains.
On Tuesday, the Chattanooga City Council will hold a public hearing at its 6 p.m. meeting for residents concerned about the development of steep slopes in the city. In a presentation to city council members in September, planning staff said it is not impossible to develop on steep slopes or flood plains, but it would be beneficial for the city to put a policy in place that outlines how builders can "appropriately develop" these sites.
Across the city, the number of stormwater violations has more than quadrupled since 2013. Five years ago, there were 46 violation notices to contractors and businesses for violating stormwater regulations. From June 1, 2017, to June 1, 2018, there were 196. Developers were not required to obtain land-disturbing permits for construction of single-family homes until 2013.
Many violations are for "failure to maintain sediment and erosion controls" on construction sites, which often leads to stormwater runoff that can negatively affect nearby homes and the environment, leading to flooding and water pollution in neighborhoods with steeper slopes and houses in close proximity to each other, like in St. Elmo and North Chattanooga.
IF YOU GO
What: Chattanooga City Council meeting and public hearing on steep slopes
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Council Assembly Room, 1000 Lindsay St., Room 101.
While the number of violations has risen in the past five years, the number of violations with civil penalties — fees ranging from $100 to a few thousand dollars depending on the damage and when it's resolved — have stayed relatively the same. In 2013, the number of violations resulting in penalties totaled 71, according to figures provided by the Land Development Office. From June 2017-2018, the number of violations with penalties was 78.
While an increase in violations is normal with an increase of new development in the area — the number of construction site inspections ballooned from 2,800 in fiscal year 2013 to more than 5,000 this past fiscal year — the growth the city is experiencing has become more than the city's soil engineering specialists and inspectors can manage, officials have said. Chattanooga has also seen more flash flood storm events this year and in recent years, which can make it difficult to maintain sediment and erosion controls on construction sites.
Planning staff said they are currently reacting to rezoning requests "on the fly" and there is less consistency and predictability in defining appropriate site design on steep slopes and floodplains. In looking to other cities in the region, including Knoxville, Nashville, Asheville, North Carolina, and Durham, North Carolina, staff found several different types of regulations that apply to developments on "sensitive environments."
In metro Nashville, areas containing slopes of 25 percent or higher are designated as "critical lots," and areas in the floodplain don't count toward minimum lot area requirements for new developments and construction within a sensitive environment.
In Knoxville, for new zoning requests or new subdivision developments, 50 percent of the floodplain must be preserved and the city tree code encourages the retention of six trees per acre or to replant eight trees per acre.
In Durham, no more than 15 percent of the existing steep slope can be graded within a sensitive environment.
City planning staff recommended in September that the city create minimum standards to address development intensity, grading and fill in on steep slopes and floodplains, as well as incentives for preserving these sensitive areas. They stated that changes to the permitting and enforcement processes should also be made to provide more accountability for construction site management.
Jeremy Swilley, the construction program supervisor for the city, oversees permitting and inspectors for the Land Development Office. In an interview with the Times Free Press, Swilley said inspectors have had to get creative with enforcement and come up with new ways to get developers to follow protocols and pay fines for stormwater violations. There are five inspectors divided up among the active construction sites throughout the city, he said.
"With the amount of development we've had, resources are stretched very thin," Swilley said. "We obviously can't hire 10 new people to do all this work, so we've got to be more efficient."
Swilley said they've started giving contractors seven days to fix any violations on construction sites, and if they don't make corrections, then city building officials will work with inspectors to completely shut down the site. No more work can be completed until the site is brought back up to compliance.
The office has also started holding certificates of occupancy from builders until they pay all outstanding fines. They also require preconstruction meetings with builders for sites that are more than an acre — Swilley said there aren't enough of them to require it for sites less than an acre, though.
A bulk of the resident complaints the Land Development Office receives come from St. Elmo and North Chattanooga.
"There's a reason they didn't build on it in the 1930s," Swilley said about the slopes in those communities. "Now, it's very valuable and there's not much left, so they [developers] are going to want to build there."
Swilley said their strategies are still new, but they recognized there was an issue and that some of the citizen complaints were valid. Sometimes, they straddle a fine line between responsible development and developer's property rights, he said.
"When it has been your backyard and it has been wooded for a long time and now there are five townhomes going in, not too many people are happy about that," he explained. "Someone else bought the property and they have every legal right to develop it, but we are going to make sure they develop it responsibly."
Oftentimes, rezoning and subdividing lots to put a higher-density development on it contributes to an increase in stormwater issues, according to Swilley.
Stormwater performance measuresView
Rezoning requests and land-use recommendations fall to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission, which mostly consists of developers, builders and real estate professionals in town, before being heard by the City Council or Hamilton County Commission. The chairman of the Planning Commission is Ethan Collier, president and CEO of Collier Construction.
The Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga said in a statement that they have been following the planning agency's initiative and are waiting to hear more details in the coming weeks.
"It is our hope that the result of this study helps maintain the natural beauty of our community without adversely affecting the affordability of housing. We feel that this balance is critical in helping ensure that the broadest portion as possible of Chattanooga's citizens are financially able to purchase a new home if that is their desire."
In St. Elmo, Brooks eventually sold the house he called home for nearly eight years. He bought a fixer-upper in Rossville and was still able to pocket some cash for improvements on his new home. He said he felt like a stranger on his St. Elmo block near the end.
"I only wanted a nice new neighbor and to be a good neighbor," Brooks said a few months before he sold. "I'm not anti-reasonable development at all."
Contact staff writer Allison Shirk Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org, @Allison_Shirk or 423-757-6651.