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Staff file Photo by Matt Hamilton / A construction worker cuts a piece of wood while building a home on Sweetshrub Way in the Wild Ridge subdivision on Walden's Ridge.

With new home permits soaring well over historic levels on Walden's Ridge, efforts to craft what officials say is a seamless growth plan for the area's future are underway.

The initiative includes the towns of Signal Mountain and Walden, along with the unincorporated part of Hamilton County on the ridge, officials said.

"It will be one seamless plan from front to back of Walden's Ridge plateau," Hamilton County Commission Chairman Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain, said in a phone interview.

Some residents on the ridge already worry about growth overcrowding the schools, taxing existing infrastructure and using up green space.

"I'd hate to see the mountain turn into neighborhood after neighborhood," Karen Brown, who has lived on Signal Mountain for 40 years, said in an interview.

In 2021, homebuilders raced to pull new single-family home permits on the ridge amid a strong housing market countywide, figures show.

New permitted residential units climbed 64% on the ridge last year compared to 2020, according to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency. That's the most annually in at least 15 years, agency figures show.

About three-fourths of the growth came in the unincorporated part of the county on the ridge, according to the numbers, with the town of Signal Mountain accounting for nearly all the remainder.

The town's 2020 population census data reveals it grew 17.1% from 2010 to 8,852. That's nearly twice the 8.8% rate posted by the entire county.

While east Hamilton — East Brainerd, Ooltewah-Collegedale and Apison — is by far the county's fastest growing part, developers are much more active on the ridge than they were in the past decade and a half, planning agency figures show.

What's next?

More may be coming.

Late last year, a pair of Chattanooga developers bought nearly 535 virgin acres in unincorporated Hamilton County on the ridge.

Real estate investors Jimmy White and Hiren Desai, partners in Urban Story Ventures, paid $5 million in December to buy the massive tract on Sawyer and Corral roads.

White, whose company is redeveloping the former Alstom manufacturing site in downtown Chattanooga into mixed-use space, said he expects the plan for the group's ridge tract will emerge over time.

First, he said, they want to get community input on the parcel's "highest and best use."

"I'm not being intentionally vague," White said in a telephone interview. "We don't know what we'll wind up doing. At Urban Story Ventures, we like to find properties that can impact the community in a positive way."

He added that there is a need for more housing on the ridge and in Chattanooga in general.

"Tennessee is a top 10 inbound site for relocation," White said. "We're blessed with a lot of beautiful places to live."

Jason Farmer, another Chattanooga developer, said by phone that he's building a 12-lot subdivision off Taft Highway and West Fairmount Avenue in the unincorporated area of the ridge and seeing a lot of interest.

"I've never had a development in which I've received more phone calls," said Farmer, adding the homes are expected to sell between $750,000 and $1 million each.

He said people like the quality schools on the ridge and that it's a safe community and family-friendly.

Driven by demand

Lois Killebrew, owner/broker for Mountain City Realtors, said the growth is driven by demand, citing the ridge's amenities and proximity to Chattanooga's downtown.

But for many years, the ridge experienced just average growth, she said. Then, Signal Mountain Middle/High School opened in 2008 and the pace picked up, Killebrew said.

"We had people moving from Lookout Mountain to come to the schools," she said by phone.

But with growth has come concerns about what the ridge will look like in the future.

Will overcrowding affect the quality of the schools people are moving to the mountain to attend?

Thrasher Elementary is already 19 seats over capacity, with an enrollment of 564 and a building capacity of 545.

Nolan Elementary — which is the zoned elementary for the areas on the mountain where new development is planned or now occurring — is two seats away from being at capacity, with an enrollment of 732 and a building capacity of 734.

Signal Mountain Middle/High School has more elbow room, with an enrollment of 1,335 and a capacity of 1,613.

Hamilton County Schools spokesperson Steve Doremus said by email that school capacity figures are based on the size of a school's core facilities, such as the cafeteria and the number of classrooms and restrooms. When a school is over capacity, it means the school is serving more students than it was designed to ideally accommodate.

"Modifications by the building principal can be taken to alleviate the over-capacity situation by making sure all space is utilized in the most efficient way," he said. "In the case of Thrasher, the number of students beyond capacity does not cause substantial problems at this time, even though it is not an ideal situation."

Price points

Lisa Davis, who lives in Walden, said in an interview that she'd like to see more moderate-priced housing.

"Not everyone can afford a half-million-dollar home," she said. Also, Davis said, she'd like to see more housing for seniors, though not apartments.

Virginia Dove of Signal Mountain said in an interview that one of the growth concerns is infrastructure, such as water and traffic.

"There's only three ways onto the mountain," she said.

Brown said she's particularly worried about growth stressing schools and the environment. She cited issues with sewers and the destruction of open land.

Killebrew said there's going to be growth on the ridge, and it's not going to stop.

"There are people who would like to stop it and put a gate at the foot of the mountain," she said. "You can't stop it. The smart thing to do is manage growth."

Killebrew said her concern is the roads up and down the ridge. Signal Mountain Road is the principal artery up the mountain and then there are the W Road and Roberts Mill Road, both of which often close during bad weather.

Farmer said there would be even more growth on the ridge but for a sewer moratorium.

"It could be one of the hottest growing areas if not for the sewer moratorium," he said.

Sewer issues

Due to the unique geology and past sewer issues on Walden's Ridge, the issue of wastewater treatment is an obstacle that developers must overcome before building.

All of the ridge, aside from a few pre-approved properties and those connected to the decentralized wastewater treatment system on the mountain, has been under the moratorium since 2008.

The moratorium means any new construction that occurs can't be connected to the sewer system. Outside one subdivision or the pre-approved properties, all new homes must have septic tanks. That means getting a permit from Hamilton County Division of Groundwater Protection, which would require the applicant to meet requirements set by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority Director Michael Patrick said by phone that only about 1,500 homes are served by the town of Signal Mountain's conventional sewer system and treatment facility at the foot of the mountain. He said that none of the sewage from the mountain is treated at the Moccasin Bend facility that serves Chattanooga and most of the rest of Hamilton County.

While the majority of existing homes on the ridge have septic tanks, an exception are new homes in the Wild Ridge at Fox Run subdivision.

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Staff file Photo by Matt Hamilton / A worker carries lumber at a home construction site on Sweetshrub Way in the Wild Ridge subdivision on Walden's Ridge.

Patrick said the wastewater from that subdivision, where there are 50 homes occupied or under construction, is treated on-site at the neighborhood's own self-contained treatment system.

No homes outside the subdivision, which will have a total build-out of around 200 homes, may connect to the facility, he said.

The subdivision's developer is responsible for constructing the treatment facility and expanding it as more houses are added, but the Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority holds the permit for the facility and is responsible for its operation and any necessary repairs, Patrick said.

Working together

Baker, who represents the Walden's Ridge area, said government representatives on the ridge are working with Franklin, Tennessee-based Common Ground Urban Design + Planning to develop the comprehensive mountaintop growth plan.

He said he's setting up a steering committee, which will include people from the towns of Signal Mountain and Walden, the general community, developers and urban planners.

Walden recently worked with Common Ground to develop a plan for that town, and the next step is a blueprint for the unincorporated area atop Walden's Ridge. That should take about nine months, and it will be followed by development of a plan for the town of Signal Mountain, Baker said.

Baker said the effort would stretch from the front of Signal Mountain to the Sequatchie County line.

"I'm in favor of having a plan that includes the entirety [of Walden's Ridge] and that we have responsible growth," he said.

Walden Mayor Lee Davis said by phone that the town initiated its planning process around 2016-2017 when he asked the Regional Planning Agency to help with a land-use plan. He said the last time a plan was developed for the ridge was in 1997 and land use blueprints typically are updated around every five years.

"They were very cooperative, but they said realistically with the other demands they had and other priorities in the county, it would be at least 10 years before they could get around to helping us," Davis said of the agency. "Over the last couple of years, we've looked at the growth that's happening across the plateau and figured it would be good for us to initiate a plan in Walden. We thought it was a significant enough priority to use our own funds to make it happen."

Walden paid Common Ground close to $50,000 for its plan, and Hamilton County and the town of Signal Mountain have each earmarked $30,000 in their respective budgets this fiscal year toward their portions.

Signal Mountain Vice Mayor Susannah Murdock said it seems the town, Walden and the unincorporated parts of the mountain almost function individually at times, like they're in a silo.

"A comprehensive mountaintop growth plan could try to put everybody on the same page in terms of what our long-term growth patterns are going to look like," she said.

Murdock said public feedback is key to the process.

"I hope that all constituencies of people will be well-represented," she said. "What happens in one part of the mountain affects the others, so it's important that we all have a shared vision."

While the regional agency would normally be tasked with creating this type of plan, Baker said the agency is busy creating a plan for the fast-growing eastern side of the county.

"This is a way to shore up the Walden's Ridge plateau portion of the planning," Baker said.

Public meeting dates will be set once the steering committee has been formed, he said.

Signal Mountain resident Dove said if the goal is to put together a plan, she's hopeful people will follow it.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

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