We've said it often, but it bears repeating: Growth is hard. Especially in our Chattanooga area geography.
The beautiful, tree-covered slopes of our ridges and mountains frame our picture-perfect, river-carved valley and provide the very things that help us sell Chattanooga as a tourism mecca, even as they attract job-creators like Volkswagen. But our ridges' steepness and our valley's flood-prone nature also give us ready-built land-use policy headaches.
That's why for the past year Chattanooga planners have been working to mold our two-fold blessings, mountains and streams, into workable future building rules.
The planners on Tuesday released a proposal to update and toughen — and in some cases create — rules for building on steep slopes and in flood plains.
They are calling for limits on clearing, grading or land disturbance on sites with moderate slopes of 15% to 25%. Specifically on those slopes they would allow disturbances on no more than half of the land. And for very steep sites with slopes greater than 25%, such disturbance could affect no more than a quarter of the land.
"There's no regulation on how much can be clear cut now," according to Bryan Shults, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency's director of development services.
Builders already are crying that the sky is falling.
Doug Fisher, the executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga, labeled the new report as part of a trend toward "anti-growth," and he says the proposals, if adopted, could increase costs to the point that the average wage earner can't afford to build a home. "It's the straw that broke the camel's back," he says.
Hint: That's what many builders say about any kind of limit or regulation — be it slope, stormwater, acreage or energy-saving rules — you name it.
But here's the funny thing. Builders in other cities already are following such steep-slope rules. Compared to cities such as Nashville, Knoxville, Asheville, North Carolina; Huntsville, Alabama, and others, Chattanooga has just two out of 22 similar zoning and subdivision regulations. Shults said that fact "was a stunning thing for us."
Fisher, meanwhile, said the planning proposal is an over-reach and "the most damaging regulatory changes to the building and construction industry in decades."
Jim Johnson, founder of Chattanoogans for Responsible Development, said the RPA did a lot of research to produce the report titled "Natural Resources Assessment." He said planners did "a really good job balancing the needs of the city as a whole while not putting an onerous burden on property owners and developers."
The report was driven by complaints the Chattanooga City Council heard about a year ago from residents worried about building taking place on slopes and floodplains. Neighborhoods such as North Chattanooga and St. Elmo especially voiced concerns over stormwater runoff, erosion control measures and aging infrastructure.
What remains to be seen is what elected officials do with the proposals. Two years ago developers persuaded the Chattanooga City Council to ease a standard for stormwater runoff retention put in place four years before along the extremely flood-prone South Chickamauga Creek that drains some 400 square miles of land and empties into the Tennessee River.
Builders and business owners who were hit with higher mitigation fees argued that infrastructure to hold 1.6 inches of runoff on site rather the 1 inch required by the state wouldn't solve sedimentation problems but did drive up development costs (sound familiar?) and put the entire responsibility for a regional problem on a small group of builders.
Residents don't like more expensive, either — whether we're talking about home costs or stormwater fees.
But neither developers nor residents will like the Chattanooga of tomorrow if we don't plan better today.
Already, we know that our region, especially in the city of Chattanooga, has a shortage of affordable housing. Already we know that Chattanooga apartment rental rates in 2017 rose five times faster than work wages — despite also having the sixth-highest wage growth in the nation last year and the fastest rate of population growth among Tennessee's largest cities. Already we know that the Tennessee Housing Development Agency reported last year that only 30 percent of median wage-earners in Chattanooga could afford to buy a home, and almost a quarter of Chattanooga's renters are paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing.
On the other hand, we also already know Chattanooga is under a federal EPA ruling to halt combined sewer and stormwater runoff overflows that is costing about $400 million and as of last year, the city's stormwater violations had more than doubled over the previous six years. Already we know the county, looking to be able to add homes and businesses to tax rolls, is looking for a place to build a new sewer plant. And guess what: no community wants that in its back yard.
Close your eyes and imagine the ridges throughout the city covered with homes and apartment complexes — housing that only the wealthy among us can afford and housing that would change the view and feel of Chattanooga.
Close your eyes again and imagine the torrents of new rainfall runoff paths likely to emerge.
Yep. Growth is hard.