The Chattanooga City Council pulled hard on the reins of proposed steep slope development legislation in its strategic planning meeting Tuesday, and we think that's a wise choice.
We don't disagree with studying current regulations on floodplain and steep slope development, which are the subjects of a recently released, 112-page report by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency (RPA). Indeed, we have written before of our alarm especially at the number and geography of homes being built over such a short time on the confined hills of North Chattanooga, now often called North Shore.
But we also think the complicated ramifications of such a report deserve thorough scrutiny from land owners, builders and even from city officials, who stand to see property tax collections fail to grow if home building is stifled by the new regulations.
As it stands now, the report — called the Natural Resources Assessment — will have a public hearing at the Tuesday, Nov. 5, city council meeting. A total of 40 minutes will be allowed for public comment, with individuals being given three minutes apiece to speak.
Originally, the city council was to determine how to direct staff to proceed with recommendations made in the report at a Planning and Zoning meeting a week later, on Nov. 12. Now that date is undetermined. Again, we think that's wise.
Between now and that future date, we hope all city land owners examine the report to see if and how it affects their land. It's our understanding even many builders, whose livelihood would be affected by the proposal, have little understanding of just what is being suggested.
For instance, land owners whose property has a 15% slope could only develop 50% of their property; land owners whose property has a 25% or more slope could only develop 25% of the property.
How drastic a slope is 15%? 25%? How much home could be built on 25% of an already small property? These are questions that take time to study.
Doug Fisher, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga, says the proposal not only affects land owners in North Chattanooga and St. Elmo, the subject of much of the recent discussion about slopes, but owners throughout the city.
The proposed regulations would affect more than 70 percent of undeveloped land in Chattanooga, he said. Owners of many — perhaps more than 1,000 — of those pieces of property don't even know the Natural Resources Assessment is being considered. Shouldn't they be apprised of the potential impact to their investment? he asked.
Also, might it be better, Fisher wondered, if any future proposal were more narrowly tailored to the specific areas that have slope and flood plain issues?
In any case, according to the RPA website, before voting on the proposal, city council members want to take field trips both in Chattanooga and in peer cities to see how similar recommendations are implemented. To date, those trips have not been scheduled.
Nevertheless, such trips seem the right thing to do, even though the Dec. 18, 2018, city council resolution directing the RPA to analyze the city's steep slopes and floodplain challenges asked the agency to compare Chattanooga to other cities. Council members seeing the evidence up close can never be a detriment to such decision-making.
It also would be instructive, we believe, if the city studied the potential future property tax loss it might suffer if the proposed regulations cut home building, say, by a quarter, or a half, or more. Without property tax growth, after all, increasing taxes on residents in one way or another begins to look very appetizing.
Plus, if builders felt they were being too restricted in Chattanooga, or if they felt the cost of homes would have to rise too much because of having to tack on the cost of additional studies, they probably would be happy to turn their attention to unincorporated Hamilton County, surrounding counties and North Georgia.
Fortunately, though, the city council has bought time to study the impact of the RPA proposals. Perhaps they won't be as onerous as they seem at first blush. Perhaps there are work-arounds. Perhaps the recommendations could be modified.
Again, we're not against updating regulations, but we see wisdom in putting space between the release of a 112-page report with new rules that could affect thousands of Chattanooga land owners (and examining it) and the adoption of such a report.