Ministry attempting to withdraw plans from Ooltewah after opposition from community

Im here to represent my people, and my people say, no.

A ministry for homeless people announced Thursday it would withdraw its plans to build a community of 32 affordable "tiny homes" in rural Ooltewah where renters could live, work and raise food.

But Chester Bankston, the Hamilton County commissioner for Ooltewah who opposes the tiny home project, said he won't let Mustard Tree Ministries pull the plans. That's because Bankston expects county commissioners will vote it down at its June 8 and June 15 meetings, which would kill the proposal for at least a year. If Mustard Tree pulls the plan, he said, the ministry could resubmit sooner.

"They can't [withdraw]," Bankston said. "That's my decision."

The proposal already got a thumbs down on May 9 from the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission, which by a 13-2 vote recommended against allowing the United Methodist Church-backed ministry to build a cluster of 300-square-foot homes on a 17-acre farm once used to house the Lighthouse United Methodist Church near the corner of Snow Hill and Mahan Gap roads.

The planners' no vote came after more than 1,800 signatures opposing the project were presented by three Ooltewah-area homeowner groups.

"This has the most opposition of anything I've dealt with," said Bankston, who's served for six years as county commissioner. "I'm here to represent my people, and my people say, 'No.'"

The proposed tiny homes would have rented for $250 t0 $300 a month, "which we believe actually fulfills a dire need in our community for more affordable housing," reads a statement from the Rev. Barry Kidwell, the United Methodist pastor who heads Mustard Tree Ministries.

Some 4,000 new apartments are slated for Chattanooga, Kidwell said, but "none are really properties that many would consider affordable. As an example, the housing PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) program, which offers tax relief to some developers in exchange for a percentage of affordable housing units, considers $700 per month as affordable housing."

Each of the 300-square-foot "micro homes" were to be site-built on a foundation, with a kitchen, bathroom and a living room for one or possibly two people each, Kidwell said, with a number of the homes being handicapped-accessible to support the needs of individuals with disabilities.

He said occupants would be thoroughly vetted, and the ministry has had interest from veterans, formerly homeless individuals, college students - some who want to serve as missionaries - and others living below the poverty level in Hamilton County.

Michael Purcell, who's on the board of Mustard Tree Ministries, said the ministry "underestimated the amount of opposition that we faced."

"I wouldn't say we've given up on it," Purcell said. "The organization still owns the farm. Hopefully, we can prove ourselves to be good neighbors in the area. And with more time, there'd be more support."

But Bankston said the 17-acre site isn't near stores, services, or public transportation and residents would put themselves at risk of getting run over on the surrounding two-lane roads.

"Not the right place for it," Bankston said. "You're not going to help those folks up there; you're going to hurt them."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfree or or or 423-757-6651.