Hixson zoning battle heads to vote

Hixson zoning battle heads to vote

January 22nd, 2013 by Mike Pare , Cliff Hightower in Local Regional News

Developer Duane Horton discusses plans for the Chattanooga Village project at a public meeting at the Hixson Community Center in this file photo.

Photo by Allison Love/Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

What: Chattanooga City Council vote on Chattanooga Village

Where: City Council chambers, City Hall

When: 6 p.m.

POLL: Should the City Council approve the Chattanooga Village development?

Chattanooga's City Council today may bring to a close one of the most contentious and hard-fought rezoning battles in the city in years.

But most council members Monday were reluctant to talk about how they will vote as they weigh the $100 million Chattanooga Village proposal in Hixson for the second time in two weeks.

Most said they would take a wait-and-see approach, and they want to know if some of the conditions related to the apartment and commercial project have been met since the last time the council spoke to the developer and residents.

"My gut says there's some details outstanding," said Councilman Andraé McGary, who made the motion to defer the rezoning effort two weeks ago.

The project, slated for a vacant 190-acre tract near state Highway 153 and Boy Scout Road, calls for construction of up to 280 apartments. In addition, plans are to build 500,000 square feet of retail space and 250,000 square feet of offices. The project would be one of the biggest mixed-use developments ever in Hamilton County.

Councilwoman Pam Ladd, who represents the area, said she wants to hear more of developer Duane Horton's plans for the area and whether he has met some or most of the proposed conditions laid out earlier by area residents.

"I have residents close to the area and are concerned about the traffic," she said.

But two council members adamantly oppose the project. Councilmen Jack Benson and Manny Rico said they would vote no on the project at this point.

Benson said he would only support the project if its zoning remains residential and the developers come back at a later date to get approval for the other sections they want to create commercial and business. He said he wants to also hear timelines on when the developers would start each phase.

"The way it's presented now, I'd have to vote against it," he said.

But Councilman Russell Gilbert, who also said he wanted to wait and hear the presentation, added he could see the developer's point of view. He said it would be hard for a developer to accept coming back for different rezonings in the future with no guarantees a future council would accept them.

He said he also thinks the developer appears to have incorporated some of the changes sought by those who challenged the project.

"It seems he did change the plans based on [the residents'] recommendations," he said. "It has seemed like he did what he said he's going to do."

LONG FIGHT

The council's action could end a rezoning fight that started shortly after Horton's Scenic Land Co. unveiled a development proposal nearly a year-and-a-half ago. Two weeks ago, the panel deferred action on the proposal until today.

Gregory Vickrey, the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy's executive director, said that despite two weeks of talks with the developer, he'll urge the council to vote no.

"[Horton] has demonstrated a willingness to make cosmetic changes," said Vickrey, but the developer has dismissed the more central concerns.

Horton, however, said the meetings were productive and 10 more conditions were added to the original 25 that planners put on the proposal.

"They've improved the plan for the community and for us," he said.

Horton said there is no fall-back position for him today.

"The option we've put forward is the best option for the landowner," he said. "It goes much further to protect the property than how it's zoned in its current state."

Vickrey said any fall-back position from his viewpoint would mean accepting the conditions the Conservancy and neighbors have requested.

"Is there wiggle room within the conditions? Probably. But when the developer has dismissed the big-picture items -- those things central to a good development -- we think it's a flawed project," he said.

Ellie Wallis, who lives in a neighborhood near the proposed development and has been an active critic of the project as a member of the Don't Chop the Hilltop group, said "important points" for critics weren't addressed by Horton.

She mentioned that planners had wanted the development's retention ponds to meet the standard of holding 1.6 inches of water from rains, but that was later changed to 1 inch and Horton hasn't budged.

Wallis said there also has been no change in the amount of buffer space some residents would like to see, and Horton has not submitted an updated grading plan.

Also, she worried about potential public costs related to transportation changes adjacent to the site.

SOME ARE IN FAVOR

Some Hixson residents, though, are upbeat about Horton's plan.

Marv Martin, a Hixson real estate broker, said that while he doesn't live closest to Chattanooga Village, worries about reduced property values are "unrealistic in a number of ways."

"The uncertainty of the future use of this land is negatively influencing the value of these properties," he said in an email. "A well-designed and -implemented plan for future use of this property would remove this uncertainty and ultimately have a positive influence on these property values."

Martin said that traffic, erosion and stormwater runoff are issues that must and can be addressed.

"If zoning is approved, then it is up to designated authorities to see that requirements are met as the development progresses with immediate penalties and enforced remedies for violations," he said.

Hixson development

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

Martin added that increased property tax revenues in Hixson will build a stronger platform for improvements in its schools.

Meanwhile, both sides used outside help, including lawyers and public relations experts, to push their cases -- unusual for a rezoning case in Chattanooga.

Attorney Joe Conner was hired by the Conservancy, while lawyer Sam Elliott has helped developer Horton.

Derryberry Public Relations has aided Horton while Albert Waterhouse and Nathalie Strickland of Waterhouse Public Relations have weighed in with critics or Chattanooga developer CBL & Associates Properties Inc., the owner of nearby Northgate Mall.

Earlier reports indicated CBL was playing a role in trying to derail Horton's plans.

CBL on Monday declined to comment on the matter. Vickrey said that while he did reach out to CBL to let company officials know what was going on, he hasn't accepted money from them, nor did the company offer. Vickrey said Conner is paid by the Conservancy.

Wallis said she hasn't worked with CBL on the project.

Strickland said Waterhouse did help Michael Lebovitz, a top CBL official, talk with some council members about the project.

Waterhouse said there are concerns that there's an estimated 600,000 square feet of vacant commercial space in the Hixson area. He said his firm was paid by CBL.

Horton said he had no comment on CBL, except to note that "competition is important and healthy for our economy."

He has estimated the project would spur 2,000 jobs and generate $2 million in annual taxes. He also has said that area property values will rise because of the development.

But Vickrey said stormwater management of the site is a big issue for him. He added that phased zoning, whereby the apartments are built first and other parts then rezoned, would make sense.