Walden, grocery developer deny lawsuit's charges

Rendering by Franklin Architects / A proposed grocery store is part of a $15 million commercial project in Walden.

The owner of a tract where a controversial grocery store project is proposed in Walden, and the town itself, deny that an ordinance paving the way for the development was improperly approved.

The decision by the town board late last year was "supported by material evidence, had a rational basis, was fairly debatable and was not arbitrary, capricious or illegal," said Chattanooga attorney John Anderson, who is a partner in the development group LOP LLC.

The town, in its answer to a lawsuit filed early this year asking a judge to stop the proposed project, said it had the authority to decide planning and zoning matters in the case involving construction of a 44,000-square-foot grocery store and small shop space.

"The town reserves the right to show it complied with all applicable provisions of local and state law," said Chattanooga attorney Ronald Wells, who is representing Walden in the suit filed in Hamilton County Circuit Court.

In January, two Walden residents and another person who lives near the planned project at Taft Highway and Timesville Road filed suit against the landowner and town that's located atop Signal Mountain.

Gary Smith and Linda Collins, both of Walden, and Anthony Wheeler, who lives in Hamilton County near the proposed development, brought suit claiming that the board that passed the ordinance and approved the project was in direct conflict with a land use plan and zoning.

The suit cited a failure to require a comprehensive plan for a complete village center, and it said the project encourages strip or generic suburban commercial development with large parking areas.

"The decisions of the Town Board in passing the ordinance and approving the development were illegal, arbitrary and capricious and this court should overturn them," said the suit filed by attorney Douglas Berry of the Miller & Martin law firm.

The suit challenged the town's adoption of the ordinance on Dec. 15, 2019, without additional meaningful review and formal action by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission after extensive changes were made in the ordinance. The lawsuit claims the town council was in violation of due process of law in the rezoning decision and urged the court to void the project's OK.

In addition, the suit said the town's failure to conduct additional public hearings on the ordinance after a Sept. 10, 2019, public hearing was in violation of the law.

But the town and Anderson denied that additional public hearings were required. Anderson said the town wasn't required to publish or distribute a full text of the ordinance prior to a public hearing.

He said in court papers that some individuals who spoke at earlier public hearings on the project and were in opposition weren't town residents or adjacent landowners to the development.

"Many residents and property owners spoke in favor of the development and rezoning," Anderson said.

He said many of the conditions added to the ordinance by the town were detrimental to LOP and were added to "address concerns raised by residents and property owners including those opposed to rezoning."

Walden officials had put 23 conditions on the project that is to go on the site that for many years has held the Lines Orchids Greenhouse.

The proposed $15 million project won approval late last year after a long fight with a number of residents on Signal Mountain.

With zoning in place, the development group earlier said it would begin clearing land at the tract, which is to hold a full-service grocery store, fuel station, retail stores, offices and a public park.

While Anderson has said he's under a confidentiality agreement with the store owner and wouldn't reveal the grocer, Food City tried unsuccessfully earlier to put a supermarket in the nearby town of Signal Mountain.

Walden Mayor William Trohanis and Alderwoman Sarah McKenzie voted in favor of the development that is expected to generate about $610,060 in revenue to the town and to Hamilton County each year, according to Anderson. Alderman Lee Davis voted against the rezoning.

Contact Mike Pare at [email protected] or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.