NASHVILLE — Stunned lobbyists for Tennessee cities are trying to regroup after Rep. Mike Carter's bill upending the state's 15-year-old urban growth boundary law barreled through the House Local Government Committee on Tuesday despite their concerns.
The freshman Ooltewah Republican says he brought the bill affecting annexation because of Chattanooga officials' previous efforts to amend its growth plan in order to, in Carter's words, "cherry pick" affluent suburbs.
But he says the problems extend well beyond Chattanooga, and so does his bill. Calling it the "Ryan's buffet rule" after the all-you-can-eat restaurant chain, Carter says the bill requires cities to "clean" their "plates" by annexing everything in their current urban growth plans before seeking to amend them.
Another bill provision requires cities to meet their requirements to provide services to all previously annexed areas before amending the plans.
Because the bill affects every town and city in the state, that brought officials from the Tennessee Municipal League, which represents them, running to the full committee after the measure passed subcommittee last week.
"This is not limited to Chattanooga," TML Deputy Director Chad Jenkins told committee members. "It's not limited to Hamilton County. It's not limited to big cities. It's every city in the state."
Jenkins warned of "unintended consequences if this bill is passed" with impacts far beyond Hamilton County.
He also said the 1998 law, which requires cities to create urban growth plans as a solution to urban sprawl, worked in Chattanooga's case because other cities and Hamilton County easily blocked the city's effort on the local coordinating committee comprised of local mayors.
Jenkins also warned Carter's bill would block cities from annexing property held by property owners who wish to come into the city for various reasons. He cited as an example a farmer who wants to increase the value of his land by obtaining services like water and sewage to entice developers.
Carter's bill passed on a voice vote following an unusual recess to draft a written amendment to address one of cities' concerns. That came after some lawmakers objected to a verbal amendment.
The amendment seeks to make it clear that the bill would not prohibit cities from continuing to amend their plans in order to remove areas they no longer want in the growth plan. Some lobbyists indicated they were under the impression the bill would be delayed a week.
An attorney and one-time top aide to former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, Carter said that was never his plan. While he thought it was "obvious to everyone," he said was agreeable to the change.
Carter said while he has used Chattanooga as an example of problems, they are in other areas as well.
"I gave them examples I was personally aware of," Carter said. "If I thought it was that, I'd have brought a private act. You saw support [in committee] from across the state."
He said one local official told him that "if a city doesn't grow, it dies. Now, I think that's the definition of a Ponzi scheme. The absurdity of that is obvious. The state doesn't grow [geographically], it grows its economy. The county doesn't grow, it grows its economy -- or it raises its tax base."
The bill now goes to the House Calendar and Rules Committee, its final stop before hitting the House floor. Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, has not yet moved his Senate companion bill to Carter's measure.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...