The Dangers of Unplanned Growth

I spent a good part of my childhood on the west side of Houston, Texas. Some of my family and many friends are still there, so this weekend’s historic, catastrophic flooding has been very personal and sad. While life on the Gulf Coast is always rife with risk of hurricanes and tropical systems, this event is unprecedented. The recovery from this flood is going to take years, and the economic impact we will all feel country-wide has not yet set in. Houstonians are strong, courageous people, but this is a tough one to swallow. My thoughts and prayers are with all those affected, and I find myself proud to be at once a Texan and a Tennessee Volunteer – a name that Tennesseans received for helping Texas in both the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War. I know many Tennesseans are already on their way to help, and many more will help as the recovery and cleanup begins in the coming days and weeks.

It has been particularly painful to see such a disaster occur when so much of it was worsened by inadequate municipal planning. Houston is the 4th largest city in the US – it has a population in its metropolitan area of 6.5 million people. Famous for its policy of no-zoning, there has been so much development in the past 12 years since I moved to Tennessee in 2005 that I hardly recognize it whenever I go to visit. The infill development is astounding, and neighborhoods are changing over seemingly overnight. The natural bayou system that exists to move water along and out to the Gulf of Mexico is inhibited by large master planned communities and poor infrastructure development. The City had strict codes in the 1970s, and many developers avoided the city limits and began to develop the surrounding counties. There was not a lot of communication between the different urban and suburban development plans; areas that probably should have never been developed now have entire subdivisions under water. There is limited public transportation, and as a result, there is massive sprawling infrastructure, much of which is aging and insufficient for what is asked of it daily. Much of the city sits less than a hundred feet above sea level, and streets regularly flood in even the smallest rain storm. This devastating situation was going to catch up to Houston at some point, and that time has unfortunately arrived. It’s truly heartbreaking.

The entire ordeal has had me thinking about Franklin and where Franklin sits in its own growth and development story. I truly believe Franklin is at a pivotal moment in its history, as it is no longer a sleepy little town south of Nashville, but an economic force in its own right, and one of the most booming areas of the entire country. My husband and I were here in 2010 for the Nashville flood. Our neighborhood, Spencer Hall, fortunately did not flood (with the exception of a few houses around the retention ponds), but many of our friends’ houses did. Parts of Ward 4 flooded east of downtown, particularly those that are in the Harpeth River floodplain. It’s been 7 years, and I can’t help but wonder with all the development that has occurred in our area in that time – what would Franklin look like if we had another flood of similar magnitude tomorrow? How many more neighborhoods would be under water? How many people would be affected? What would be the cost to our public infrastructure? Are we even considering this possibility in our municipal planning?

The Franklin Planning Commission has sent the Splendor Ridge subdivision proposal to BOMA with their unanimous approval. If built, it would be in the 100 year floodplain. Our infrastructure is aging in many places and insufficient to move the amount of traffic that we already have. All over Williamson County, rural farmland is being developed into master planned communities, many with significant uproar from existing residents of the area. Drive around the City limits and you’ll see multiple rezoning requests posted. The Williamson County schools are unable to keep up with the amount of students they are enrolling. Our superb and enviable quality of life here is truly is at risk if we don’t make specific changes now for the future.

Growth is a good thing, but it must be done with planning and intentionality. The City should not be approving any residential or commercial development in the 100 year floodplain – it’s just too risky. Period. No new developments should be approved without adequate infrastructure being built (and paid for!) simultaneously. We need to have a tough conversation about the importance of keeping some land undeveloped so that there is a place for water to go in the event of another catastrophic flooding event.

Franklin is one of the most desired places to live and work. We have the leverage to make sure that all growth and development is done in an appropriate way for Franklin’s future. It’s time we hit the pause button and thoroughly access the impact that all the development is having on our City’s infrastructure, safety, public services, and amenities. The situation in Houston should serve as a warning for municipal governments everywhere, but particularly here. We don’t want Franklin to mishandle this opportunity to safeguard its future. The cost of that is just too high for us and future generations.

–Elizabeth

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