Chattanooga planners OK $100 million project on Highway 153

Chattanooga planners OK $100 million project on Highway 153

January 14th, 2014 by Shelly Bradbury in Business Around the Region

Hixson resident Jerry Jones, left, addresses the planning commission beside Duane Horton during the Monday meeting at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

WHAT'S NEXT?

The Chattanooga City Council will vote either for or against Hillocks Farm on Feb. 11 at 6 p.m. in the City Council Building.

Planned 190-acre Hillocks Farm development on Highway 153.

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

Hixson resident Jerry Jones has been against the idea since the very beginning.

Build a $100 million retail, office and residential development along Highway 153 -- practically in Jones' backyard? No way. Jones told everyone, loud and clear, how much he hated the idea.

The Chattanooga City Council denied that plan, then called the Chattanooga Village, in January 2013. But developer Duane Horton has resurrected a new version of the 190-acre development, calling it Hillocks Farm, and is once again seeking a rezoning to get the massive project off the ground.

And Monday, Jones stood up to say how happy he is about it.

"I've opposed this thing on every step you can imagine," he told the Chattanooga Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission. "But we beat it down to a development I think will be the best we'll ever get ... I'd say we need to do this shopping center just the way we've got it."

And it wasn't just Jones. In an apparent reversal of public opinion, no one spoke in opposition to Hillocks Farm at the planning commission meeting Monday -- a stark change from past meetings, where often as many as three dozen opponents would pack the room to protest.

After about 45 minutes of discussion, the 15-member planning commission gave Hillocks Farm a stamp of approval and recommended that the Chattanooga City Council give the final OK to the project at its Feb. 11 meeting. If the City Council signs off, Horton would be all clear to build Hillocks Farm, which would include 280 apartments, 250,000 square feet of offices and 500,000 square feet of retail.

"It's been a lot of hard work and prayers," Horton said after the yes vote. "We're optimistic about the work that not only us but the whole community has done."

Horton held more than 20 public meetings with neighbors as he put the project together.

All but three of the planning commission members voted in favor of the proposal -- which includes 39 conditions that address everything from building height to parking lot landscaping -- despite staff's concern that Hillocks Farm will snarl traffic and overload the area's transportation system.

The Hillocks Farm plan calls for two entrances on Highway 153, which the city's transportation director, Blythe Bailey, said would increase the number of drivers turning left from Boy Scout Road and clog the intersection of Dayton Boulevard and Highway 153.

"You'd be relying on road widenings and improved intersections to make the transportation infrastructure work," he said. "We're trying to make sure we don't get ourselves into a hole, and we're scrambling to catch up with the development."

He added that while Horton did propose road improvements to mitigate the impact of the development, he did not address existing traffic problems that will be exacerbated by Hillocks Farm.

"These challenges would only be solved with a long-range, extremely expensive project, which is way beyond the scope of what would be reasonable for the developer to handle," he said.

But Horton argued that Hillocks Farm won't reach full capacity until 2020, and he gave the commission a letter from TDOT that said Highway 153 and U.S. Highway 27 are not slated to meet or exceed their capacity in the next three years. Both roads are managed by the state.

Commission member Adam Veron said the traffic impact is the reason he voted against the proposal.

"It feels like we're putting the buggy ahead of the horse," he said. "I didn't feel like the network of roads around that property could handle the rezoning."

But commission member Joe Graham said he hopes the tax revenue from the project could be used to help improve the roads in the area, which he said would have the same problems whether or not Hillocks goes ahead.

"This is a positive, a positive and another positive," he said. "You add all this extra revenue to the state, city and county, and I believe that's where the revenue will come from to fix all those exits, on-ramps and accessways."

Mayor Andy Berke said the proposal is a complicated issue.

"I know our transportation department has worked diligently to provide information so that the planning commission and Chattanooga City Council can make the most informed decision," he said.

But City Councilman Chip Henderson, who helped set up a nine-member community committee to work with Horton on the project, said the neighbors' response speaks for itself.

"It was what, a year ago that this room was packed out with people opposed to this project?" he said. "It's a testimony that one of the most vocal opponents is in support of it today."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.