Hixson deserves better plan

Hixson deserves better plan

January 20th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga Village developer Duane Horton discusses plans for the project at a public meeting.

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

Zoning and rezoning conflicts come and go so often here that they have acquired an air of predictable treatment: Brief consideration by planning agency staff and an overly political Planning Commission stuffed with developers, and, too often and often wrongly, an inevitable victory for developers over protests by neighbors with legitimate zoning and environmental objections.

This should not be the political glide path for the massive, 190-acre Hixson hilltop development along Highway 153, which runs down to the jumbled junction of Corridor J, Dayton Boulevard and the state protected wetlands of North Chickamauga Creek.

The hilltop proposal, Chattanooga Village, is tainted by far too many unanswered and unresolved concerns, too many blue-sky promises not put in writing as zoning conditions, and suspect political shenanigans. In short, this overly hyped but half-baked proposal hasn't earned a green light.

City Council members have no sound grounds on which to approve the proposal when it comes back before them. They should not continue just to defer this proposal; they just should flatly deny it.

As it stands, developer Duane Horton has presented so many promises and versions of the plan that there yet seems to be no final plan, and no promise he won't make to the 2,800 Hixson area residents who signed a petition against the proposal. What's more, there certainly are no firm approvals by the state's Department of Transportation and Department of Environment and Conservation regarding their core traffic and environmental concerns.

TDOT and TDEC officials, who denied approval for the plan the developer originally submitted last spring, have recently said that the description of improvements the developer has promised to make - but has not agreed to list as a condition for rezoning - might work if executed.

Their delicate distinction suggests the same sort of political pressure that apparently has been applied to the staff of the Regional Planning Agency. RPA staff last spring gave developer Duane Horton's initial proposal a thorough vetting and then firmly recommended rejection of it. This time around the RPA signed off on the revised plan despite many of the same concerns.

The turn-around of the RPA, TDEC and TDOT appears to coincide with the political shoving of Mayor Ron Littlefield. The mayor rarely attends the meetings of the developer-friendly Planning Commission, which is led by his former campaign chief, developer Dale Mabee. But Littlefield recently took his seat at a Planning Commission meeting to advocate and lead a narrow 7-6 vote to approve Horton's Chattanooga Village proposal. And now he's pushing the City Council to give it the final approval.

That would be wrong.

The proposal to rezone the large hilltop tract, an area larger than Hamilton Place mall and all now zoned as R-1 residential, has been significantly improved since last spring. But a list of area residents' concerns and proposed conditions that remain unaddressed is lengthy.

Horton has said he has a marketing feasibility study and a list of committed tenants for the mixed-used apartment/commercial plan. But he has refused to release either, spurring the fear of a purely speculative development, one that admittedly has no time-line and that Horton himself labels as a "multi-generational" build-out.

He also has yet to obtain or present a grading plan, a hydrology study, an erosion study and a study of the hilltop's soil - chert soil previously rated as "very limited" for small commercial use by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These studies should be a routine prerequisite for the massive water retention systems the developer proposes to prevent flooding and wetlands contamination from runoff down the massive hilltop.

In this case, his water-retention plan is especially critical. The RPA standard merely requires a retention capacity for a rain event of 1.6 inches that is preceded by three dry days. Yet the 10-day rain event that dumped more than 6 inches of rain here in recent days flooded and marooned a neighborhood along Boy Scout Road at the bottom of the hill, between Sandswitch and Lower Mill roads, for several days.

Hixson opponents, often represented by Gregory Vickerey, executive director of the North Chickamauga Conservancy, cite a range of other unaddressed issues for the proposed development that have been presented to the City Council by their law firm, BakerDonelson.

Among other things, they note that it is near 625,000 square feet of unused or underutilized commercial/retail space, including 60 undeveloped acres in The Fountains' site opposite the hilltop, which Horton helped clear as general contractor, and which was cited several times by TDEC for water detention violations.

Vickerey, who has been wrongly labeled as a foil of CBL and Associates Properties Inc., owner of Northgate and Hamilton Place, points out that the groups he represents began their opposition last spring. He said they would drop their objections if Horton would put his promises in writing and allow them to be included as monitored conditions of a rezoning, backed by performance bonds and specific development schedules.

Given the existing vacant commercial space in Hixson, and the community's 2006 approval of a new growth plan for the area, these conditions are clearly reasonable and appropriate. It would wrong for the City Council to approve the proposal absent such legitimate conditions, just to benefit another speculative development.