A bill ready to go before the Metro Council on first reading next week would prohibit future residential development inside Nashville’s entire floodplain, a policy that would significantly alter the way the city builds.
Already, a handful of council members have rallied around the ordinance, but the proposal is bound to face fierce opposition from the development community. Meanwhile, Mayor Karl Dean has suggested more consideration is needed before adopting a new policy for floodplain development.
The bill’s sponsor, Old Hickory Councilman Darren Jernigan, said he decided to file the ordinance after looking into the eyes of hundreds of his constituents whose Waterford subdivision homes were ruined by Nashville’s flood. He said floodwater affected 85 percent of the neighborhood.
The goal, he said, is to make sure that “it doesn’t ever happen again to other people.” If approved, his bill would effectively outlaw future neighborhoods like Waterford from being built, prohibiting the construction of all homes inside Nashville’s 100-year floodplain.
Currently, according to Jernigan, Metro limits residential development on 50 percent of the city’s floodplain, a law spearheaded by Councilman Bruce Stanley several years ago. “My bill would be 100 percent of all floodplains,” Jernigan said.
The bill is likely to be amended at some point, however. Jernigan said he plans to add a clause for development-property transfer rights that would apply to people who already own land in floodplains. With the clause, they could sell their land to other developers, who would receive vouchers from the government. Metro would assume control of the flood-prone property.
As of last week, Metro officials had identified more than 530 damaged structures within Nashville’s floodway, and another 2,500 damaged structures outside the floodway, but within the city’s 100-year floodplain.
Co-sponsoring the bill is Councilman Mike Jameson. Jernigan said other council supporters include Duane Dominy, Emily Evans and Jason Holleman, among others.
The mayor’s office — along with federal and state officials — is currently overseeing an aggressive home buyout plan, a program targeting, above all, severely damaged houses inside the city’s floodway, a designated area where homes are most susceptible to future flooding.
Asked for his thoughts on Jernigan’s bill, Dean said he would like to take sufficient time to consider ways to protect homes against flooding, but indicated Metro will likely alter its policy in some way.
“I have a ton of respect for Darren. He’s a good friend of mine,” Dean said. “But in terms of saying this is how development should go forth in Nashville in the future, this is what we need to build in terms of other flood protection, I’m going to want to take my time and think about that and make sure we come up with the right decision.”
Dean added that there will definitely “be a reaction” to the flood in regards to future development. “We’re not going to continue doing everything the same way after this flood is over,” he said.
Holleman said Jernigan’s bill requires some work, but called it a “good starting point” for discussion. He said the current policy, which prohibits residential development on 50 percent of the floodplain, was a compromise, adding now is the time to see if it needs to be changed.
“Floodwaters went beyond the floodplain,” Holleman said of Nashville’s flood. “Is that just because of the enormity and the unusualness of the event? It could be. But I think there’s also a case to be made that because so much construction was in the floodplain that it pushed water to places that are outside the floodplain. That’s not very fair to those homeowners.”
But many developers are likely to oppose the bill. Attorney James Weaver, who often represents developers, cautioned against acting to fast.
“While our clients understand the desire to act fast, normally with complicated issues like this acting too fast has a high potential to produce as many unintended and negative consequences as appropriate and desirable and intended consequences,” Weaver said in an email. “This is without question potentially one of those times.
“In the end, the root cause of these floods, beyond the obvious once-in-a-lifetime rain event and the releases at Old Hickory Dam, are likely very complicated and the solutions are also likely broader than just changes in the flood maps and strict, one-size-fits-all limitations on uses,” Weaver added.