Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In the continuing saga of the SROZ, the latest entry is today's editorial by Bill Lusk. Frankly, I am starting to wear down. I have made my points and they continue to be ignored. I have argued for density-based zoning, based on Randall Arendt's advice and I continue to hear about lot-size based zoning. There are many unsupported comments in today's editorial. The comment is made that the SROZ is in conflict with the Land Use Plan developed in 2008. Well, of course!That is why we are changing the zoning, however a return to lot-based zoning is also in conflict since the land use plan states:

"...large lot development with structures distributed on an equal amount of acreage with large lawns and wide roads contributes to the loss of this [small town] character and do not protect wildlife habitat and water quality. To help preserve the scenic beauty and sensitive natural features of this area, Open Space subdivisions or Planned Unit Developments with substantial amounts of open space are the preferred methods of development in these areas. In order to preserve desired natural features, the focus in this area should be providing more flexibility within regulations regarding net density, while maintaining a gross low density. This will allow better preservation of open space and environmental features."

Mr. Lusk seems to confuse subdivision regulations with zoning regulations. While the current work on subdivision regs are important, they are the means to the end which is new zoning. The regulations will hopefully make conservation zoning more practical and help to lower costs and preserve land, but combining these with large lot sizes will continue to waste land and be counter-productive. Only through density-based zoning can we have true conservation zoning.

I have recommended we add a density cap to the SROZ as an intermediate step to address the very issue that Mr. Lusk and the rest of the council fears (increased density), preferably with an incentive for open-space preservation. This proposal has been ignored. Ironically, previous land use plans have generally recommended a density for the area of 2 homes per acre, in the ballpark of what I've recommended (I would prefer less for conventional and more for open-space subdivisions as an incentive). Nothing has yet been proposed for this area that is greater than this density.

Mr. Lusk has indicated an unfairness to having a different zoning category from the rest of the town in the Shackleford Ridge area. However, this area has always had different zoning from the rest of the town since it was annexed. Residential Estate zoning doesn't exist anywhere else that I know of. It was created to allow the residents there to keep farm animals such as horses and pigs on lots greater than 3 acres. By this reasoning, Residential Estate should (and probably would) be available throughout the town if the SROZ is repealed, allowing farm animals anywhere that a minimum of 3 acres is available. Alternatively, we could solve this by lowering the minimum acreage to 1/3 acre for sewered lots throughout the town to ensure fairness. Mind you, I'm not proposing either of these alternatives.

Mr. Lusk is wrong about the commercial zoning issue. I disagree that "commercial development is no more likely to occur in the Shackleford Ridge area than in any other residential area in the town." This area has been identified in the past as a site for a future "commercial node". The majority of this council has been very clear in its desire for more commercial rezoning and one has even enthused that the Timberlinks-Shackleford Ridge intersection would be a great place for a convenience store to serve the high school students. Let me emphasize: There are no commercial options available under the SROZ. At present, in order to create a commercial zone, we would have to either add commercial zoning to the SROZ or repeal the SROZ. Sound familiar? I honestly don't know how likely commercial development is, but part of my reason for raising it is that we have not considered all the implications of this repeal.

Finally, I want to address statistics. As a physician, I know how statistics can be misunderstood, misused and misrepresented. There is an old saw about "lies, *%&$# lies and statistics". Mr. Lusk himself, in his statement when he opposed increased funding for the high school misrepresented and misused (or misunderstood) statisics. He stated that Signal Mountain paid for 77% of the High School and only had 45% of the students. That is wrong. The High School cost approximately $40 million dollars and we donated $7.7 million. That is about 19% of the cost. Based on his reasoning, we got quite a bargain out of the high school. With this experience, I thought I should look closely at the statistics in his op-ed. He quoted data from the Ochs Center study. I reviewed this study and had a very pleasant discussion with some of their staff. I do appreciate Mr. Lusk introducing me to this outstanding resource.

First, it should be clear that the data on median house value was based on census tract data that only reflected part of the town (see for the map and data). This area does not include my neighborhood (The Orchard), St. Ives, Creekshire or the Shackleford Ridge Road area. Since these are higher end neighborhoods, the data is clearly skewed. It is based on MLS data which is unavailable to the general public, so I couldn't delve into the value data in greater detail, but the total number of homes sold would be clearly pertinent since the lower the denominator, the less reliable the statistics. The report does note that Signal Mountain has the highest housing values in the county, which is good for homeowners, but does not make the argument for affordability. Also, my argument was about new housing. I agree that there are older homes available in areas of Signal Mountain, some of which are of lesser cost, however nearly all new homes I know of are marketed at greater than 1/2 million dollars. This report also includes the statistic that we have averaged about 12 building permits per year (before the moratorium) and an increase in "one family household units" of 1.7% from 2001-2007 which hardly supports a fear of "unbridled growth".

It seems clear to me that the majoriy on this council is bound and determined to do what they will do regardless of what the Planning Commission decides. I'm not sure why we are wasting their time again. They have voted on this issue twice and the Council keeps asking the same thing over and over again hoping for a different outcome. Whether or not they get it I expect the council's actions will be the same. It also seems clear that the outcome is pre-ordained and all the work of the last 2 1/2 years has been a smokescreen. I only hope that, whatever the Council does on the SROZ in the short run, it will still ultimately do the right thing and pass progressive zoning regulations for the town which will lead to preservation of our open spaces and discourage sprawl. Based on what I've read today, I am not hopeful.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

We had our budget meeting this week and I wanted to give a brief synopsis. The big news is we will not be proposing a property tax increase. We will need to pass along an increase in water costs because of an increase from Tennessee-American. We will also be looking at some fee increases. Things will obviously be tight, but I don't believe anyone will notice any major decrease in services. The town is in good shape financially, but we can't live on our savings so hopefully the economy will turn around. The Hall Income Tax is still a big question mark and if that is significantly less than predicted, we may have to tighten our belts even tighter. I want to thank Honna Rogers for her excellent stewardship of our town resources. I'll get some more details later.

We will be receiving some money from the economic stimulus and using it to pave James Blvd, among some other roads. We plan to pave 2 more miles of road in addition to what we receive from the Federal government.

I do want to note that I received an apology from Susan Robertson for her comments during the last town meeting during the SROZ discussion and I expressed my own apology for any discourtesy I showed. I want to express my appreciation to Susan for that. It was quite honorable of her and showed character. It certainly lifted my mood and made for a more pleasant budget hearing.

On a personal level, I want to congratulate all the high school (and college) graduates in this graduation season and wish them a happy and prosperous future whatever their plans! Good luck, Class of 2009!

Monday, May 11, 2009

PS: tonight's meeting

If you want some independent confirmation of my account of the meeting, here is the's account:
I regret that tonight's meeting of the Signal Mountain Town Council demonstrated a level of disrespect and lack of professional courtesy which I had hoped it was above. Here are my comments, as promised, which I delivered tonight on the SROZ:

"I wish to reiterate my position on future zoning on Signal Mountain. It is the same position on which I ran and was elected. During my campaign I proposed that Signal Mountain move forward with progressive zoning changes which would preserve open spaces and discourage sprawl. I recommended we study the impacts of growth and consult experts in modern planning practices and follow their advice. After my election, we sought such an expert and brought in Mr. Randall Arendt. He reinforced my position on density-based zoning. Among his many detailed and very helpful comments, he stated the following in reviewing our current zoning practices:

“Regarding the zoning, the most critical deficiencies in my view are that it does not appear to allow flexible lot sizes (essentially precluding conservation design)…

Signal Mountain, like many other municipalities, commits the fundamental error of regulating density through the indirect method of setting minimum lot sizes. This counter-productive approach unintentionally robs the community of the very resource lands that give it its special rural character. Instead, I have long advocated regulating density directly, by stating that no more than one house may be built per X amount of buildable land on any given property.

In a district where two du/acre is the norm, lots that would ordinarily run about 22,000 sq. ft in area could be resized to about 13,000 sf to achieve 40% open space.”

This is the principle on which I ran and on which I still stand. When asked if I wanted to repeal the SROZ and the zoning regulations it contains, I have consistently said no, I want to replace them with modern zoning, not return to the wasteful, expensive and sprawl-encouraging practices of the past. The Planning Commission has embarked on an ambitious process to rewrite Signal Mountain’s entire process of subdivision and zoning regulations. Twice in the past two years the Planning Commission has been asked to repeal the SROZ before completing its process and twice it has wisely chosen to stay on course. Now, once again it is being proposed to ask them to recommend that we repeal the overlay zone. I see no reason to change course now. Granted, this process is taking longer than I had hoped. Certainly the one silver lining of the sewer moratorium has been the time to do this, and my informal discussions with Dr. Urban lead me to doubt this is likely to be lifted soon, but I would suggest we urge the PC to redouble its efforts to complete its rewrite of the subdivision regs. I would also urge the PC to go ahead and establish a second subcommittee to begin the rewrite of the zoning regs.

We must remember that the so-called SROZ is merely an overlay zone allowing different zoning than the rest of the town. This is because it contains most of the large tracts of undeveloped land in the town and has the potential for sewer availability, allowing for smaller lots. It may or may not make sense to have separate zoning in this area than the rest of the town. Ideally we would have the same zoning throughout the town, but I remain open to arguments that separating out the area for different zoning is appropriate. The primary difference between the SROZ and the rest of the town is the allowance of minimum 1/3 acre lots vs the minimum ½ acre in the rest of the town for new development. What is the practical effect of this difference? The SROZ contains 744 acres. There are currently 12 homes (plus the Bible Church) on 61.7 acres in that area on and 2 subdivisions with 50 platted lots on approximately 50 acres in Dogwood Grove and Boulder Point subdivisions. 36 ½ acres have been set aside for Open Space by Jack Kruesi. So that is 62 homes or proposed homes on 148 acres. That leaves 598 acres give or take a few. Assuming 15% for roads and utilities, we have 508 acres. So let’s take the ludicrous assumption that those 508 acres could all be perfectly divided in 1/3 acres lots (and anyone looking at the steep slopes out there would know that is an impossibility, one tract has about 52 acres in the Connor Creek Gorge alone which would be highly problematic and I haven’t accounted for blue line streams at all nor the natural gas pipeline ROW which cuts through the area). That makes 1586 homes on 744 acres or a density of 2.1 homes per acre.

ed note: Before my comments, Julian Bell presented info on a development plan for his property which amounted to 1.9 homes per acre under the SROZ. This clearly shows that I am being excessively generous in my calculations.

Now, the average number of single-family homes built between 1997 and 2006 has been about 14 per year. So it would take just over 112 years to fully develop those extra homes at that rate.

So, I would again recommend that the Planning Commission not interrupt its work to move backwards. The process of changing a zoning ordinance always takes some time since public hearings and specific time allotments are required. This all includes the not insubstantial expense of newspaper ads, staff time, etc. After the PC made any decision, the Town Council would still have to prepare an ordinance and go through its own process. The practical effect of repealing the SROZ as long as the moratorium is in effect is zero. So, why go through all this twice? What a waste of time! I would certainly encourage the PC to invite Dr. Urban to a meeting to review the status of the moratorium. Even if the moratorium were lifted before the Planning Commission completed its business, the fact that they are in the middle of this process would probably justify not approving any new subdivisions until the process is completed. I would certainly encourage the PC to redouble its efforts, schedule extra meetings, meet longer and do whatever it takes to get this process completed. Finally, if the Planning Commission and Town Council are bound and determined to make a premature decision now, I would urge them to consider just adding a density cap to the current SROZ to at least make it a step forward rather than backwards."

I must add another concern that I didn't raise at the meeting. At present, the SROZ does not include any commercial zoning. If it is repealed, commercial zoning would become available. Councilmembers have shown their interest in expanding commercial zoning in the town and one has specifically commented on the attractiveness of putting a convenience store on Timberlinks or Shackleford Ridge Road near the High School to serve the students. I hope the Planning Commission will take this into consideration when making this decision.

After my presentation and other comments by the council, the floor was opened for discussion. At one point I asked the chair, Mayor Lusk if I could add a comment. His reply was "If you can keep it under three hours"! I will say that in my two years as Mayor, I treated each Councilmember with respect, agree or disagree and would never have made such a snide, sarcastic and disrespectful statement. Soon after this, during further discussion, Susan Robertson interrupted me, cutting off my comments by declaring "I call the question", ie, ending debate and asking for a vote. Again I emphasize that I never cut off discussion and always allowed each Councilmember to have their full say, no matter how late it went. Mrs. Robertson claimed she was following Robert's Rules of Order. Actually, the proper phrase is "I move the previous question" which cuts off debate. This motion must be seconded and passed by 2/3 vote. However, this motion cannot interrupt discussion and proper procedure would have been for her to wait until I was done and then ask to be recognized by the chair (neither of which she did), then making her motion. She was clearly out of order. While we are debating Robert's Rules, I think I should emphasize another "Rule" that would be pertinent:

"All remarks must be directed to the Chair. Remarks must be courteous in language and deportment - avoid all personalities, never allude to others by name or to motives!"

In all honesty I must confess that I deviated briefly from this when I commented on Mrs. Robertson's confusing the difference between minimum lot size based zoning and density based zoning. I frankly was amazed that, after all the hours we have spent studying this issue and learning about this she still doesn't seem to understand this principle.

One of the reasons I had concerns about raising the SROZ issue prematurely was just what happened, that the courtesy and decorum that I have worked so hard to develop over the last two years would be dashed and we might risk returning to the acrimony of 3 years ago. I sincerely hope that this demonstration by the Council is not indicative of the tone of future discussion on this or other issues.

Tomorrow we start the budget process at 10am at the Town Hall. Wish me luck.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

On Friday, May 1 we had our monthly agenda meeting. While these meetings were originally established to review the agenda for the upcoming Monday night meeting, they have evolved into work sessions where citizens and others with business before the town can make presentations and where the town manager can present and discuss various issues. Frankly, without these meetings our Monday night meetings would last until Tuesday (at least). These meetings (like all our meetings) are open to the public. However, because they are sparsely attended (even by the press), much of this business receives insufficient attention. Part of my goal in this blog is to provide this business to a broader audience.

On type of business sometimes taken care of in these meetings are second readings of ordinances. This is usually only done with those that are either time-sensitive or seem minor and non-controversial. At a recent public meeting, the council passed some amendments to our tree board ordinance clarifying rules for "honor trees". We had planned to complete these ordinances at the agenda meeting, however we received some emails raising concern from some folks who weren't fully aware of the tree board and its intent. For this reason, I asked the Council to hold off on a second reading until the next Monday night meeting and they agreed.

We had a presentation from the WWTA on the upcoming private service line program (PSLP). The full details are in the (, but basically the WWTA will be replacing damaged sewer lines which extend from private homes to connect with the main sewer lines. This is a program which will be done all over Hamilton County, but start on Signal Mountain. This is to hopefully improve the "I&I" problem of excess water entering the sewer system during rainfall. The WWTA has done much work on their main lines which unfortunately does not seem to have had a major impact on this problem. The good news, however is that the E. Coli in our streams seems to be improving based on sampling done by the Stormwater Dept. While most of this problem is felt to be due to failing septic tanks, it appears that there may be some contribution from the sewer system which is improving.

We then discussed some minor changes in the "chicken ordinance" which clarified some things about setback variances that had bothered me, too. Thanks to Annette Allen for bringing this up and helping to fix this problem (which will be discussed at the Monday night meeting). We have been asking the DRC to do some major revisions to our sign and other commercial ordinances and Honna Rogers suggested she help to develop some updated guidelines for them to consider. This was appreciated by the Council. This is important as the Council anticipates some future commercial proposals coming its way.

Honna presented some budget ideas for us to consider including reviewing the staffing at the Recycling Center (we plan to continue working with Orange Grove to improve customer service) and a proposal for taking garbage service out of property taxes and having a dedicated "garbage fee" as most towns do. There is much to like about that idea, but there are also issues to consider in the transition so we asked her to present much more information and details before we would begin to look at it. There will clearly be a broad discussion about this if we decide to move forward.

Honna continues to propose ideas for making our services more efficient and automating some processes which are currently done manually. These are all great ideas and are moving our town forward. We are in the process of reviewing her first year of service to our town and preparing a longer term contract for her. There will be more on this as we each give our input to this process.

In discussing the agenda for the upcoming Monday Council meeting, the issue of the SROZ raised its ugly head again. Annette proposed we once again ask the Planning Commission to recommend that we repeal the SROZ (the first step in that process). This will be the third time the Planning Commission has been asked to do this. Both previous times they decided to hold off until they had finished their process of revising our subdivision regulations, which is to be followed by a comprehensive revision of our zoning regs. My position is the same as it has been since I ran for Council. I want to replace our current zoning regs, which are based on old-fashioned and sprawl-enhancing lot-size-based development concepts, with modern ideas utilizing density-based zoning based on the advice we got from Randall Arendt. This will be a complicated process. My position is that we should do this all at once, replace the SROZ with a whole new process. I don't think we need to move backwards before moving forward. The moratorium is still in place and doesn't seem likely to go away soon, so no development can occur anyway. I should note that the only development done under the new rules (with minimum 1/3- acre lots) has a density much less than 2 homes per acre. I will be preparing a comprehensive reply for Monday's meeting and will post it here after that. Zoning changes are always painful and fraught with controversy. The last time we went through this it nearly tore this town apart. I think we need to do it again, but don't want to do it twice. That is my position.

Finally, I read in the paper this morning that Mayor Lusk stated that "We would be extraordinarily interested" in consolidating our water service with Chattanooga (emphasis mine). As mayor I was always careful to differentiate between my personal views and when I was speaking for the Council. As a matter of fact, the council frequently felt that the two could not be separated and that any public statement of mine was automatically speaking for the Council as a whole and should be approved by the entire Council. This process is no longer followed. While there have been some very general discussions about consolidation of various services, we have certainly made no decisions on that issue and taken no vote. I myself have mixed feelings and would require much information before even making a decision (though I would not want to sell our water company as long as the local utility is owned by a private company). I think that there is more sense in sewer consolidation. It seems clear that Mayor Lusk was expressing his personal opinions (and if he is having private conversations on this with other members of the Council, that is unfortunate and hopefully not the case). I also realize that what is in the paper does not always express exactly what you wanted it to. I hope he will be more careful with his public pronouncements in the future.