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New report aiming to protect city assets draws fire

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With a crowd of developers, property owners and other concerned Chattanoogans addressing the Chattanooga City Council, discord surrounding the future of steep slope development legislation ran high at a hearing late Tuesday.

The public hearing about a recent Regional Planning Agency report on steep slopes and floodplain development drew crowds exceeding seating of the council's chamber and 18 speakers, who spoke for more than an hour on the economic and ecological concerns surrounding potential regulation to protect some of Chattanooga's more fragile land.

In the report, released in late October, the agency asked for the council to consider findings of the year of research and consider how to best regulate development to protect the lands and property owners affected by new development. Specifically, the "Natural Resources Assessment" report calls for a new city ordinance with 10 measures as well as a variety of other "tools" that regulators could use, which would apply to all developers in the city, including limits on clearing, grading or land disturbance permitted on a site during construction.

While the report was the catalyst for this conversation, council members held the hearing to discuss possible legislation, not consider any specific ordinance since none have been put on a council agenda.

"A year ago, many council members were contacted by concerned citizens about development in steep slope areas and flooding from active development sites. At that time, council asked staff to conduct a study of that issue to help make recommendations and approaches to address these concerns," District 4 Councilman Darrin Ledford said ahead of the hearing. "I want to emphasize that this is a study. This is not a specific ordinance that is being considered by [the] city council at this time. In fact, given the importance of this issue, the council will be spending more time over the next couple of months looking at the report recommendations before we provide any direction to staff."

During the hearing, voices with varying relationships to development expressed a slew of opinions ranging from minimizing regulations to promote development to adopting the full version of Regional Planning Agency's recommendation to protect the environment.

Doug Fisher, executive officer of the Home builders Association of Greater Chattanooga, expressed concern about the impact of new regulations on the development industry and implored the council to consider stronger enforcement of current regulations.

"I represent more than 130 professional home builders and nearly 500 small business owners and their employees, whose livelihoods depend on the construction industry," Fisher said. "Lately, it has become very troubling to watch the way decisions are being made in our national, state and local law-making chambers. I would like for us to prove today that a highly controversial issue like the one we face today can be resolved through civil and respectful discourse."

Fisher said the issues being discussed Tuesday were primarily the fault of a "few" developers and said the homebuilding community must be involved in the process going forward, but warned about "throwing the baby out with the bath water."

"We're not here today to categorically dismiss these recommendations, we can all agree to the benefits of discussion about the construction of road right of ways, setback restrictions, exemption of lot sizes, timing of retaining wall construction during a project and, certainly, the need for better enforcement of current regulations," Fisher said.

Fisher then exceeded the three-minute time limit for individual speakers and became frustrated with the crowd, which yelled for him to stop after he asked Chairman Erskine Oglesby for "just a couple more minutes."

Developer concerns came back to the forefront when Dane Bradshaw, a developer representing a $300 million mixed-use downtown development announced this summer, spoke.

"This is going to be the largest mixed-use community development in the city of Chattanooga's history; it is a win-win-win," Bradshaw said. "When I hear that this report is 'not anti-development' — had this report been brought to the table, even in draft form, prior to us buying the property, there is no way we would have ever bought it. Nobody would have ever invested in it. So, if a reputable development group who has always done things the right way, has a brilliant track record, would have never bought this property how is this not anti-development?"

Many others, however, argued that development is out of control and needs to be regulated to preserve the Scenic City's natural resources.

"In recognition of the core issues, as identified in the executive summary of the natural resources assessment, combined with the peer review of the core analysis and, in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of this wonderful city, the Chattanooga Tree Commission supports the development of a natural resources protection ordinance," Tree Commission Chairwoman Grace Wooten said. "We are specifically concerned regarding the subject of tree canopy protection standards, development on steep and wooded slopes and the retention and protection of large and stately trees that would be considered heritage trees are are revered as local treasures."

Others who spoke in favor of regulation did so to protect personal property.

"Deforested steep slopes are susceptible to rapid erosion and can cause detrimental storm water issues and are also unsightly," Beth Santoro, a North Chattanooga homeowner, said. "I think most of us would agree that we would like Chattanooga to maintain its reputation as the Scenic City. At this point in Chattanooga's growth, addressing the potential for issues caused by development, developers may be tempted to cut corners due to the huge sum of additional expenses [associated with steep slope development]. Without a set of enforced ordinances in place to protect both existing and future property owners, the expenses of correcting erosion, landslide and foundational issues will ultimately fall on property owners and the city of Chattanooga."

Other ideas like streamlining existing developmental regulations, placing a moratorium on steep slope development and encouraging development in less popular areas of the city were also floated in the more 70-minute hearing, but the council will not make a recommendation to the Regional Planning Agency for at least another week.

The council will continue to discuss the issue during the Nov. 12 strategic planning meeting and will discuss the matter with the Regional Planning Agency after a 3 p.m. agenda meeting that same afternoon.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416, staylor@timesfreepress.com or on Twitter @_SarahGTaylor.

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