On first reading, City Council voted to pass an ordinance that will change stormwater regulations, but despite the initial approval, there is still confusion surrounding the legislation.
The ordinance proposes a change to the current stay-on-volume, or SOV, regulations, which involve how many of the first inches of rainfall need to be filtered before it can be allowed to go back into the ground.
The first bit of rainfall carries a majority of pollutants, such as car oil, pesticides and litter, so the water is filtered to keep that out of waterways.
The ordinance proposes changing the current SOV regulation from the first 1.6 inches of rainfall to the first 1 inch.
Currently, the 1.6 inches only applies to new, impervious surfaces.
One-inch SOV is also the state standard for this kind of regulation because the untouched ground is able to filter water at this rate naturally.
City Council members must approve the legislation once more for it to go into effect. Tuesday’s vote was 7–0, with council members Russell Gilbert and Demetrus Coonrod absent.
Officials and community members are conflicted about several parts of the proposed ordinance.
The first is about whether the new ordinance will put Chattanooga out of compliance with Environmental Protection Agency rules aimed at keeping cities’ waterways clean.
If the ordinance does put the city out of compliance, new measures will have to be taken to remain in compliance.
Department of Public Works Administrator Justin Holland clarified that the change would not put the city out of compliance as long as officials make changes to other regulations.
But it’s unclear what would need to be altered if the council approves the new legislation.
This ambiguity is the second concern. Citizens are worried because there is no explicit plan or clarity on what other changes would need to take place.
The third issue is whether the change would cause problems with flooding.
Many people have connected their concerns to the Houston flooding after Hurricane Harvey. The Houston Chronicle had been documenting the city’s struggle to update its regulations and flood plan years before the storm.
City Engineer Bill Payne, who is charged with overseeing stormwater construction and permit compliance within the city, said that the changes in the new ordinance have only to do with water quality and nothing to do with the city’s flood management plan.
“All of this is water quality,” he said. “Flood control standards have not been changed since the 1990s.”
Opinions about these issues vary, and confusion among City Council members and residents is widespread.
Here’s what some key players in this debate had to say about the issue.
District 6 Councilwoman Carol Berz
Carol Berz led the conversation over the regulations Nov. 21 during the Public Works and Transportation Committee Meeting that she chairs.
During an earlier meeting that day, Holland had come forth with the new information about the EPA compliance and confused several members of both City Council and the community.
Berz expressed frustration over the sudden change and led the decision to allow members of the community to speak on the new information at the Nov. 21 evening meeting.
Berz voted for the new amended regulations.
District 4 Councilman Darrin Ledford
Ledford’s stance on the issue revolves around his belief that the city has a lot to improve regarding water-quality issues, and he hopes that the change will provide the city with the opportunity to do that.
He sees the legislation as a way to improve the water quality in areas like South Chickamauga Creek.
Ledford met with members of the South Chickamauga Creek Conservancy and found that many people were happy with the 1.6-inch SOV regulation, even though he thinks the creek needs work.
“Everyone’s acting like it solves their problems, and it doesn’t,” Ledford said. “They’re still cleaning up the creeks. There are still problems with the creeks. Nobody’s even touched on North Georgia … They’re dumping more water than we are into our area.”
Ledford also disagrees with the arguments about the impact on flooding.
He voted for the amended ordinance.
Chattanooga resident and community activist Franklin McCallie
McCallie has been an active voice against the proposed regulation throughout the discussion.
His main concerns lie with how the city will make up for the EPA noncompliance after the regulations are changed because no plans have been put forward and there is also no estimated cost or time frame.
McCallie has also expressed concern over how the regulation would affect flooding and the environment in the past.
District 3 Councilman Ken Smith
Smith said he did not support the 2014 regulation change that created the 1.6-inch requirement, and he is happy with the potential change to 1 inch.
“I felt like the intent of the 1.6 was not going to improve the issues that we were trying to solve,” Smith said. “Three years later, it is apparent that there is no measurable difference.”
Smith also agreed that the SOV regulations have nothing to do with flooding.
“You would have to pave a massive amount of land before 1.6 makes a measurable difference on flood control,” he said.
Smith voted for the new regulations.
Alina Hunter-Grah is a contributing writer. She currently attends UTC, where she was previously the news editor of the student newspaper, The University Echo. Alina also worked at CNN during the summer of 2017 and is the former Chattanooga correspondent for 2nd & Church, a literary magazine based out of Nashville.
Updated @ 8:27 a.m. on 11/23/17 to correct the spelling of Councilman Russell Gilbert’s name.