The Chattanooga City Council backed down from a promise to a group of East Brainerd neighbors after realizing the move to block a proposed apartment complex may not be legal.
"I was pretty sure we'd be sued because of it," said Councilman Larry Grohn, who voted against a zoning change that would have prevented developers from building an already authorized apartment complex. "It's just a road we don't need to go down."
The controversial apartment complex is planned for the northeast corner of Gunbarrel Road and Pinewood Drive. Wisconsin-based developer Continental Properties already had city approval to build a 184-unit complex on the 10-acre site - the company's been clear to build that proposal since 2009.
But in August, Continental Properties asked the city council for permission to expand the complex to 14 acres and add an additional 76 units. After vehement protests from neighbors who were worried about traffic, flooding and property values, the city council voted 7-2 to deny the expansion.
But then, the City Council voted again - 5-4 this time - to send the project back to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission to ask to rezone the original property so that only single family homes were allowed. That would shut down Continental's plan.
But Councilman Yusuf Hakeem, who voted in favor of the rezoning, pulled the request to rezone the property just days before Monday's planning commission meeting.
About a dozen neighbors drove downtown from East Brainerd to attend Monday's meeting only to find that the case had been withdrawn by the City Council.
"We're shocked and disappointed," said neighbor Betty Buckley. "They stated they'd send it back and gave us hope, and now we find it's been withdrawn. It would have been nice to have the courtesy to tell us."
Grohn said he did not know that Hakeem had withdrawn the rezoning request before the meeting. Hakeem said the question of whether the City Council legally could act to block a specific project that'd already been approved pushed him to pull the request.
"In regards to the R1 [single-family zoning] there was debate or questions in regard to the legality of us doing that," he said. "And I was of the opinion it was too much of a cloud as to whether we could or not. And as a result, that's why I requested that that zoning be removed."
The land will not be rezoned at this time. And the developer can still can build the original planned 184 apartments on the site. It might even be possible for Continental Properties to build the revised plan, with 260 units, despite the City Council's vote.
Here's why. The original plan was approved with a list of conditions, and one of those conditions was that the site be built "as generally depicted in the developer's preliminary site plan."
If Continental Properties wants to make a change to the plan, they run the changes by the city's Land Development Office, where staff has the power to approve changes that fall within the conditions set by City Council.
"Generally depicted" is a vague term that gives the land development staff a lot of leeway. Technically, the office could approve changes to the original plan without asking for permission from the planning commission or City Council.
"As long as it's generally the same site plan as was depicted in the original, we can sign off on it," said Richard Hutsell, assistant director of the land development office. He added that staff carefully reviews everything from parking to engineering to setbacks when approving changes to ensure the plan fits the City Council's guidelines.
Continental Properties development director Eric Thom declined to comment on the company's plans for the site.
Grohn, who has consistently voted in favor of the project, said he thinks many of the neighbors' concerns will be alleviated by future infrastructure improvements. He said the city's budget already has money set aside to widen Gunbarrel Road in the spring of 2015.
"With the traffic issue that has been raised, probably there would be construction starting on the road six months after that apartment complex is open," he said, adding later, "I know I've caught a lot of flack from folks but I've tried to inform them that there are more moving parts bigger than their concerns over traffic issues on Min Tom, Pinewood and Gunbarrel."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or email@example.com.