A resolution before the Hamilton County Commission on Wednesday would revise county zoning regulations for the construction of single-family homes designated R-1.
It, in essence, gives developers an option to build homes on smaller lots in a newly developed, newly platted, approved, sewered neighborhood.
The new lots, if the resolution is approved, could be a minimum 50 feet across the front rather than the current 60 feet and have minimum 20-foot setbacks from the front and rear of the property rather than the current 25 feet. The current minimum 5 feet from both sides of the property would remain the same.
However, the new regulation would not force developers to use the smaller lots when establishing a subdivision, it is not retroactive to previous developments created before Wednesday, and it is not applicable if the lots are not newly platted and sewered.
In other words, it's more of a tool than a mandate.
If it were a mandate for all future homes designated R-1, we couldn't support it. We have seen firsthand when developers attempt to shoehorn a completely different type of development into an existing, settled subdivision, and it's not pretty. It divides neighbors, exposes the false promises and half truths of shady developers, and has the potential to create a neighborhood design smorgasbord.
The reason the county needs the new zoning regulations, according to Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga CEO Doug Fisher, is because of the lack of available workforce affordable housing. If the county wants to continue to attract new industry to the area, and the workers to go with it, he said, it needs a place for them to live.
The number of available homes in the county, according to the Greater Chattanooga Realtors, has decreased by 55% compared to the same time last year, but the median sales price of a home over the same period has climbed from $243,950 in June 2020 to $300,000 in June 2021.
The long-range advantage of the new regulations would be an expansion of the county's tax base. Where 100 homes could be built currently on what Fisher calls "a perfect geographical area," 116 could be built using the new zoning regulations.
The property taxes on the denser houses and the sales taxes generated by families who move into the houses for new jobs would grow the county's coffers for the county to, in turn, offer more services back to homeowners.
Fisher says Signal Mountain is a case in point of what developers are facing.
The town has very few areas in which developers can plan a new subdivision, he said. If new homes aren't built, the tax base stagnates. So instead of being able to broaden the tax base, the existing tax base is forced to bear the burden.
In 2019, according to newspaper archives, Signal Mountain raised its taxes 21.3%, or about 33 cents per $100 of assessed value.
"The ability to have more flexibility in developing smaller lots will lead to increased inventory, more affordable housing, and ultimately increased tax revenue for the county," the Realtors organization put it in a Monday letter to the Hamilton County Commission.
The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission already approved the new zoning standards with no dissenting votes.
We would feel remiss if, in supporting the new zoning regulations, we didn't stress the importance for developers to consider the infrastructure in place — or not in place — when they seek to build a new neighborhood. North Chattanooga and East Hamilton County are two places in which growth has run ahead of infrastructure over the last several decades. Water runoff problems and traffic backups have been among the results.
If the zoning amendment is forward thinking and an example of smart growth, pairing any such change with a doubling down on infrastructure upgrades is even smarter.
Fisher says the R-1 zoning change would be the first for the county in about four decades, and he said it has been in the process — including the Regional Planning Agency and the Regional Planning Commission — for six to eight months
MAP Engineers owner Mike Price opposed the plan before a recent Hamilton County Commission planning committee because he believes it "has not seen the light of day to the general public" and because he said there are additional tools like Planned Unit Development zoning that can offer denser developments.
But Fisher and others said such developments are what have driven up the price of houses and made them unaffordable for those taking the workforce jobs that local industry is offering.
In the end, we believe the ability for developers to have the tool of denser zoning, but not be forced to use it, is important for the future of the county, its industries and its tax base. We urge the commission to approve it Wednesday and to use whatever power it has to insist that proper infrastructure growth accompany the more competitive zoning regulations.