Subterfuge on the 'Hilltop'

Subterfuge on the 'Hilltop'

December 12th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Hixson development

Hixson development

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

A week ago today the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency's staff recommended a 30-day deferral of a proposal by a Hixson developer to build a huge, mixed-used office/retail/apartment project on a 190-acre site on Highway 153.

The site, known in a long controversy as "the hilltop," drops down a forested hill to heavy congestion at the Boy Scout Road intersection of Corridor J and Dayton Boulevard. Opponents went home thinking they had a month to consider the impact of 25 conditions set by the RPA for approval of the rezoning.

Monday they learned the proposal was back on the Regional Planning Commission's agenda. A few hours later, approval of the proposal was rammed through by Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, who sat on the Planning Commission panel, advocated its passage, and gave it the tie-breaking 7-6 vote for approval.

His rush to override legitimate concern about the Hixson hilltop project parallels his greasing of the skids for approval of the Publix store on North Market Street despite its flaws under the North Shore zoning guidelines. His intrusion in the planning process in both cases seems inappropriate. Why is he joining the side of developers in projects before the kinks are fully considered?

Littlefield's actions to override reasonable public debate is inexcusable. It spurs suspicion of cronyism with developers, or at the least an arrogant notion of leadership that gives too little tolerance for public debate.

Residents of the Hixson area have legitimate concerns about re-zoning land to expand what has become a needlessly ugly, high-speed and vacancy-ridden corridor from Chickamauga Dam to Corridor J. Lack of signage rules, trees, landscaping, and access to pedestrian travel along or across Highway 153 make it an imposing barrier and an inhospitable venue for attractive retail outlets that do not sit behind acres of dreary asphalt.

City government has done nothing to mitigate Highway 153's deficiencies on the north side of the river, where a tree-lined boulevard approach should be workable. And city leaders show no commitment to a plan to do so. Yet Mayor Littlefield is willing to intervene -- almost by sneak attack -- in behalf of re-zoning of a huge tract of property whose neighbors are reasonably concerned about unmitigated congestion, stormwater runoff and the impact of more retail hop-scotch. This is no way to build public confidence in the result, and it bodes ill for now-pending City Council hearings on the development plan.