Residents debate city council’s imposing rules for hillsides, floodplains

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Farron Kilburn awaits a speaker at a Chattanooga city council hearing on proposed controls on owners of hillsides. Jim Folkner is at right. (Photo David Tulis)

Chattanooga city council hears from a wide group of citizens piqued by problems caused by hillside cascades of rainwater and pressure to build houses in popular areas of town wobbling on unstable slopes.

About 20 residents line up to speak to city council’s nine members to favor some sort of regulation against property owners that would protect those downstream a city reputation as environmentally friendly.

By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio

The council lets John Bridger, head of the regional planning agency, set the tone by declaring new rules are needed, like those in Knoxville and other cities.

The David Tulis show is 1 p.m. weekdays, live and lococentric.

Mr. Bridger describes controls for floodplains and slopes as minimal, with state rules for land stabilization during construction enforced — partly — by city bean counters using a “three-strikes rule.” Risks for development in floodplains are rising, at least partly because of climate change, he says.

City authority needs to operate to ease stormwater runoff, washed out neighbor’s yards, and stanch erosion and runoff from delayed building projects in hilly zones, he suggests.

‘Prudent’ to start regulatory process

“What we’re trying to accomplish,” says council member Darrin Ledford in an interview, “is setting *** clear standards in how we develop steep slopes and floodplains. We do not have these policies in place. And it’s time. As head of the planning and zoning committee, I find that it is very prudent that we start this process, that we start thinking about it, and that we start to take action. That’s what we’re doing tonight.”

The presentations range from aggressive demands for strict rules and controls, such made by Lynn Bartoletti, to straying arguments by others such as Sylvester Harris. He says the city council should influence developers to build houses in run-down parts of town where open land and abandoned properties exist.

Mr. Ledford agrees that some areas of Chattanooga are starving for development. “The city council does not direct development. That is a private issue. That is what developers do.” These lesser areas may eventually become more livable and more attractive, with mayoral aid, he says.

Sylvester Harris talks to city council Tuesday. (Photo David Tulis)

Floodplain building and rules for very steep slopes are “long overdue for attention” because of limits on land (no more annexation is possible) and because steep slopes and floodplains should be dealt with systematically rather than on a case-by-case hearing, Mr. Ledford says, defending is resolution requesting the regional planning agency to develop proposals.

“I live in St. Elmo,” says a woman named Carolyn, “there’s been a lot of slopes that’ve been degraded. If it rains for an hour, there’s a lot of stormwater runoff. *** That water is going into the river, and is really bad for the environment.”

One mom in St. Elmo says she frets over rocks falling upon her children playing in her yard — boulders shuddered downhill by heavy equipment. Her family spent thousands of dollars to fight a water runoff threat.

Neeld Messler, who runs Certified Affordable homes, says the steep slope problem is a new thought process for him. “I would like to suggest an ordinance that includes not just rezoning, but existing zoning. *** I would like to take this back to the citizens.” Just as a homeowner builds a new roof to maintain his property, he says, “maintain our property rights. I encourage the citizens to start stepping forward and being responsible for their own property rights. *** We need to fight for our property rights and maintain what’s right.” Mr. Messler is involved in a lawsuit over water runoff.

Moratorium sought

Farron Kilburn tells of a Northshore homeowners group and its concerns about wobbly hilltops. (Photo David Tulis)

Farron Kilburn of Baker Hilltop Neighborhood Association says conflict over stormwater “has impacted us greatly.” An hour of rain is deleterious to many, and an ordinance is better than the rezoning process, a point several speakers make. 

She says she favors an ordinance regarding slope control rather than continued use of the zoning process.

Several speakers support a moratorium on very steep slope construction and houses in the flood zone. Among them, developer Jim Folkner. The group South Chickamauga Creek Greenway Alliance urges that punishment for rule violators be stiff “so developers don’t figure in fines as the cost of doing business,” according to Angela Dittmar.

Her group helped develop an earlier set of rules that “assured the sustainability of each piece of land. Those had to do with requiring a higher percentage of open land on a parcel, little or no timber cutting, and prevention of stormwater runoff and erosion.”

Mr. Ledford is joined in the effort by council member Jerry Mitchell.

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