Who remembers when Gunbarrel Road in East Brainerd was a two-lane byway through cattle pastures with a few small houses here and there?
We do, and one doesn't have to be very old to have that memory. Those were the days when folks were wondering why anyone would build the largest shopping mall in the state of Tennessee out in the middle of nowhere. Then in the blink of an eye, Hamilton Place Mall opened its doors to the public in August 1987 — nearly 34 years ago.
And who remembers the last time our city or county or state leaders suggested putting the brakes on growth, growth, growth?
That's a tougher question since it's a such a rare event.
So it was a bit of an eyebrow raiser last week when Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who usually applauds new homes because "growth" boosts county property tax revenues without the pain of pushing a tax increase, acknowledged the obvious:
"We understand we're growing too fast," he told about 300 residents who had gathered at Morris Hill Baptist Church to grouse to him and other elected officials about clogged roads, over-development and the sound of still more hammers driving nails in still more new homes.
But after that acknowledgment, Coppinger and those other officials, one after another, passed the buck, most noting that the Tennessee Department of Transportation has to address "some of the problem."
"We need to continue to work together," the mayor said just moments after the room had applauded one disgusted resident's suggestion of an East Brainerd home-building moratorium.
Just to be clear, the Tennessee Department of Transportation usually isn't responsible for city and county streets. Not their maintenance, not their widening, not their signal infrastructure. That's why city councils and county commissions tie themselves in knots on a regular basis rather than ponying up money for repaving and the like.
But bigger roads — arteries like East Brainerd Road — are the bailiwick of the state when they double as state routes and highways. But it's complicated, and often made that way by those same elected officials who point fingers of blame like a circular firing squad.
Growth, of course, doesn't just affect roads. There's also the not so delicate matter of where youngsters go to school and where all those new bathroom flushes go. You may recall there already are overflowing classrooms and sewers in that end of the county with apparently no affordable solutions.
Yet already, as many as 1,100 new homes are approved in East Brainerd, according to county planners.
That worries Kile Prescott and Mark Hancock of nearby Apison, where still more new houses are coming in. "They hadn't had a plan," Prescott said. "We keep putting houses in."
Hancock added: "I'm not against growth. Do it right."
Instead, last month, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission's solution was to recommend making lot sizes smaller to increase population density.
"We're battling major home shortages in the county and the city," said Chris Mabee, a member of the panel said at that meeting. "This is an opportunity on taking a step to correct these issues."
By their logic, clogged roads, overflowing sewers and jammed classrooms are simple fixes: Just add more people and homes on less land. Houses on postage stamps.
The real equation is actually easy to talk about. Follow the money.
Two years ago, the Times Free Press reported about the hold-up on the last 1.5-mile leg of the widening project on East Brainerd Road to Ooltewah-Ringgold Road. In May of 2019, the work was listed on TDOT's IMPROVE Act map, but wasn't on the state's three-year plan because the $19 million project was awaiting funding money for right-of-way acquisition.
What's the Improve Act, you ask? We're glad you asked, since we're following the money.
The Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads, and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy was legislation passed by our Tennessee General Assembly and signed into law in April 2017 by then-Gov. Bill Haslam to further lower Tennessee's tax bite and — wait for it — bring more people and businesses here.
It cut sales taxes on food, phased out the Hall income tax, and made changes to the state's franchise and excise tax while raising gas and diesel taxes by six cents and 10 cents, respectively, over a three-year period.
State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, mentioned the slowed East Brainerd Road work at the residents meeting as he pointed out that Tennessee and Hamilton County are increasingly popular places to live. (After all, isn't that why we brag so much about our low tax rates — to get magic growth?) The challenge, according to Watson, is keeping up with infrastructure.
"It takes time to do that (like seven to 10 years on the East Brainerd Road project)," the senator told the disgusted residents, adding that officials have had the state transportation commissioner come to Hamilton County to see road problems.
Like Coppinger and Watson, all of our elected officials keep saying, "We need to continue to work together."
Well, listen up, East Brainerd: Work with your elected officials. The planning commission's recommendation to make lot sizes smaller and increase density is scheduled to come before the Hamilton County Commission on July 21. Meet them there and tell them what you think.