published Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

SunTrust taking Chattanooga to court over sinkhole

A parking lot sinkhole at SunTrust's St. Elmo branch has turned into a $500,000-plus affair, as bank officials take their complaints against the city of Chattanooga to federal court.

SunTrust and National Retail Properties, which owns the land on which the St. Elmo bank sits, filed a federal lawsuit against the city on March 13, claiming Chattanooga has failed to maintain storm sewer lines that run under the property.

The sinkhole formed "suddenly" on March 16 of last year, according to court documents. Because the bank, land owner and city can't agree on who is responsible, the hole still hasn't been fixed.

SunTrust and National Retail Properties also claim that the city never acquired a proper easement to run its drainage system across the property, at 3734 St. Elmo Ave., in the first place, and that when challenged, the city's former attorney maintained that "such stormwater conveyances create implied easements." SunTrust and National Retail officials say if that's the case, the city has an obligation to maintain the drainage system.

Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for Mayor Andy Berke, said Tuesday said she could not comment on "pending litigation."

But she said the city's engineering and works teams "stand ready to assist the property owner and SunTrust through the permitting process so they can make these repairs and keep their employees and customers safe."

City Attorney Wade Hinton was not available for comment.

Language in SunTrust and National Retail court documents doesn't indicate the two parties are looking for assistance from the city in fixing the problem, though. Descriptions of the dispute claim the bank and land owners have been frustrated with the city's lack of attention to the storm sewer line in question going back at least a year.

Now, the two parties are asking federal authorities to award them at least $500,000 for damages to the property. They also ask the court to:

• Require the city to respond to their allegations.

• Grant an injunction ordering the city to maintain, operate and repair the storm sewer channel.

• Grant damages for property damage and repair.

• Grant damages for economic and business losses, out-of-pocket expenses, loss of use, lost rental value and diminution in value.

• Grant damages for the compensation of property interests taken by the city through inverse condemnation.

• Award pre-judgment interest, attorney's fees and costs "to the maximum extent of the applicable law."

• Grant further relief as the court deems appropriate.

The St. Elmo branch opened in 1948 and is scheduled to close its doors on April 11 after 66 years of service to the area. Bank officials say the closure is not connected to the lawsuit or the sinkhole.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.

about Alex Green...

Alex Green joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 after completing the paper's six-month, general assignment reporter internship. Alex grew up in Dayton, Tenn., which is also where he studied journalism at Bryan College. He graduated from Rhea County High School in 2008. During college, Alex covered the city of Graysville and the town of Spring City for The Herald-News. As editor-in-chief of Bryan College's student news group, Triangle, Alex reported on ...

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