David Cook: The railroading of a Hixson hilltop

David Cook: The railroading of a Hixson hilltop

December 12th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

It's called the Chattanooga Village: a commercial and residential development being planned over 190 acres of trees, forests and one beautiful Hixson hilltop.

Based on the events from Monday, it ought to feature one more component.

Some train tracks. For the railroad.

"It feels like we are being railroaded and not being given answers," said Ellie Wallis, who lives within a stone's throw of the proposed Village. "It's frightening. I am more frightened than anything else because we haven't gotten any information from the developer."

More than 2,500 residents have signed petitions questioning and opposing the project (to be built near Highway 153 and Boy Scout Road). They have acres of questions about stormwater runoff, traffic flow and the need for more traffic infrastructure. Noise, air and light pollution.

And even the basic ones: What does the final plan look like?

"We haven't seen the plan they presented," said Wallis. "The public hasn't seen the documents. Or a traffic study. Or any other information."

Last week, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency recommended a 30-day waiting period before a deciding vote. We need to study the proposal more, they said. It's critical, they said. Let's take 30 days.

But Monday afternoon, ignoring the suggestion of its own staff, the Regional Planning Commission (the next rung up of power above the RPA) voted to do just the opposite.

The commission approved rezoning for developer Duane Horton's Chattanooga Village, pushing it forward to a City Council vote in January. (It's becoming a campaign issue for certain incumbent council members and their opponents.)

Leading the railroading was Mayor Ron Littlefield, inserting himself into a situation that both rebukes the people's voice and the process of government already in place.

"It was a political travesty," said Gregory Vickrey, the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy's executive director, who praised the commission members who voted against the rezoning.

Monday, the mayor showed up at the Planning Commission meeting, spoke strongly in favor of the proposal and then cast a deciding vote for its approval.

It's an insulting message, showing no concern for the legitimacy of the RPA staff, the concerns of the people or the importance of a slow, thoughtful planning process.

Why does the mayor care so much about the 190-acre development?

Sure, if it's successful, developer Horton's proposal could bring tax dollars and jobs to the city and county.

But it may not be. In recent years, other developments have been planned for this area, yet have come up empty. If constructed, the Village will be forced to scrap for commercial business with Northgate. Why not support and side with Northgate?

(Let's require Horton to produce a list of five retailers that are interested in the Village. Five, new-to-Hixson retailers.)

Forward-thinking planners understand that in this fragile time of economic recession and environmental instability, in-filling vacant storefronts is much wiser than cutting down natural landscapes.

So why not side with preserving the integrity, beauty and wildness of that area until it is absolutely and without question certain that this project is valuable to all involved, not just the pocketbooks of a few?

Horton's company, GenTech, was involved in the creation of The Fountains. During construction there, local and state governments found multiple environmental violations, specifically involving stormwater runoff and erosion.

"Right now, whenever it rains hard, I can't get out of my subdivision," said Wallis. "The roads both ways flood. ... And to have a developer come in and increase the stormwater runoff without even talking to the community bothers me."

If the land and people mattered as much as Horton's development, then an actual and wise planning process may have occurred. But Monday's railroading was pseudo-planning, a rubber stamp in place of democracy.

"I'm completely shocked," Wallis said.

So are most folks who get hit by a train they never see coming.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.