published Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Chattanooga being sued for not allowing IHOP


by Cliff Hightower
  • photo
    Bassam Issa is seen in this file photo.
    Photo by Lido Vizzutti

Poll
Do you agree with the decision not to allow the IHOP?

Chattanooga is being sued for not allowing an International House of Pancakes on Gunbarrel Road.

"The only option I have is to go to court," said Bassam Issa, owner of Ant Group, the company wanting to build the restaurant.

Issa filed the lawsuit against the city last week, asking the court to rezone the property, which is directly across the road from Target and Earth Fare stores, to allow a commercial development.

He asked the City Council in December to rezone the tract, but the council voted down his request at the urging of Councilman Jack Benson, who represents the area.

Issa said Monday he was through asking the council for rezoning.

"We'll let the court do it," he said.

The lawsuit also states that Benson acted with deception to stop the property from being rezoned. Benson told several council members that Issa approached him and tried to bribe him with $2,500 to have the parcel rezoned from business to commercial, the suit claims.

Benson also urged an employee at Erlanger hospital -- Erlanger's East Campus sits on the same side of the road and near the proposed Ihop -- to address the council "on behalf of Erlanger," even though the medical center never approved that action, the lawsuit states.

On Monday, Benson said he did not want to comment.

"Since it's already in court, I don't think I should make a statement," he said.

The proposed Ihop on Gunbarrel has been a contentious issue for months. Benson said the restaurant would go against the grain of the area's land usage plan. The Planning Commission also voted against Issa's rezoning request.

But the lawsuit states that rezoning of tracts within the area is not new and at least eight plots have been rezoned in direct contention with the plan since it was adopted in 2001. The suit states that Benson led the charge on these rezonings.

The suit stated that HH Gregg, Mellow Mushroom and the Melting Pot were examples of residential areas being rezoned to commercial within the land use area. Those businesses sit about a mile and a half from the proposed Ihop, past where Gunbarrel crosses Shallowford Road.

City Attorney Mike McMahan said Monday the city has a strong position and the courts usually side with the governing body on zoning matters.

But he acknowledged that Chattanooga also would have to deal with the allegations of breaking open meeting laws if Benson contacted council members before the vote, trying to influence their decisions, which the suit implies.

"It's messy," McMahan said.

Contact staff writer Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.

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