The Hamilton County Commissioners voted 5-4 on Wednesday in favor of revising R-1 zoning regulations. It increases density by reducing street frontage from 60 to 50 feet, and setbacks from 25 to 20 feet, and reduces the square footage of a lot from 7,500 to 6,000 square feet.
The measure does not apply to Chattanooga. It is expected to be taken later to the City Council.
Commissioners Randy Fairbanks, Warren Mackey, David Sharpe, Tim Boyd and Chip Baker voted to approve, while Commissioners Katherlyn Geter, Steve Highlander, Sabrena Smedley and Greg Martin voted in opposition.
The subjects of infrastructure and affordable workforce housing were both discussed in-depth during the meeting. The room was packed with county constituents both for and against the resolution.
“We don’t have the inventory anymore, and the housing choices are much greater in other cities,” said Darlene Brown, president of Real Estate Partners Chattanooga, who told the Commission that the number of single family homes on the market has dropped to 471 from 3,030 two years ago. “This would go a long way to help provide affordable workforce housing. I’m asking you to please consider this amendment.”
Those in opposition, such as Dean Moorhouse, said they did not oppose growth or development of the county, but stated their concern for the lack of infrastructure in place to support that growth.
“I’ve sat here time after time and heard commissioners speak this morning about traffic congestion, and reasons why certain developments are not right for certain areas,” Mr. Moorhouse said. Another person in opposition said he believed growth had to occur ‘responsibly’ and said “Hamilton expands and then goes back to fix the problems the expansion caused. We need to get Hamilton County ahead of the curve.”
Commissioner Boyd disagreed with the idea that developers cause problems in the county. He said government creates policies that make people want to move into an area, and are responsible for maintaining infrastructure when developers provide a way to meet the demand for housing.
“Elected officials created this demand through their good government, so constituents don’t hold developers feet to the fire when they want to support their demand,” Commissioner Boyd said.
Commissioners Geter and Highlander both opposed the amending the regulations.
“We definitely need to do some infrastructure changes on roads now. There’s things we can do, and I want to do whatever I can to improve the roads and other infrastructure,” said Commissioner Highlander, while Commissioner Geter advocated for spreading development around Chattanooga and for improving infrastructure. She said “Just building more affordable housing in certain areas does not solve the issues.”
County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Hamilton County had a road issue, not an infrastructure problem. He pointed to EPB’s work in the electrical and Internet fields as proof. He told the Commissioners that growth and higher population density will bring in more tax revenue, which will allow for more infrastructure to come into the county.
“They would like to have more money too, but we get money through property and sale tax,” the county mayor said. “You certainly will run businesses off if you start talking about infrastructure being a serious issue.”
Commissioner Smedley agreed with the mayor about the lack of quality roads, and said she did not believe the county roads can handle higher-density development in areas that already struggle to handle the current number of vehicles that use them. She also said there is no easy solution for this issue.
“TDOT said the second phase of East Brainerd Road is going to take 8-10 years, and Ooltewah-Ringgold Road is another 14-16 years,” Commissioner Smedley said. “My main concern is the intersection of Ooltewah-Ringgold Road and East Brainerd, where we have four schools.”
She said 1,100 lots have been approved for development, and said “at some point we have to stop and take a pulse, because eventually critical infrastructure needs have a negative impact on the community.”
“I’m hoping we can work directly with our state representatives, and hopefully get our governor to fast-track some of these projects. I want to know if there are any short term fixes or improvements that can be made immediately while we’re waiting for those long-term solutions.”
Doug Fisher, the executive officer for Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga, supported the amended policy. After the vote, he said the county has to continue to develop and grow in order to have the taxes needed to invest in infrastructure.
“You only have two forms of income, and our government has done a great job of recruiting new industry to Chattanooga,” Mr. Fisher said. “The problem is that we’re bringing employees to a place where they have nowhere to live. Our initiative is trying to help the workforce get more affordable housing.”
He said reports that there will be seven homes per acre is false, saying “you have right-of-ways, easements, requirements on street frontages, etc. No lot is going to be like that, and the real number is more like four or five homes per lot.”