$16 million road opens up Aetna Mountain for 1,200 homes, developers say

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / The view from the top of Aetna Mountain is seen on Thursday, October 13, 2022. Mayor Tim Kelly and other local officials gathered on Aetna Mountain to take a look at the new mountain road and area's planned development.

Chattanooga officials and developers on Thursday marked the opening of a new $16 million road up Aetna Mountain, where about 1,200 homes are planned over the next decade.

Andy Stone, managing partner for the Black Creek development group, said the 2-mile artery that starts in the existing valley portion of the huge golf-course residential community is the first mountain road in Hamilton County built to modern safety standards.

"It took two and a half years to design and over two years to build," he told a group of nearly 50 people at a scenic overlook on the heavily wooded mountain with views into Lookout Valley and other parts of Chattanooga.

The road, River Gorge Drive, is "the umbilical cord" for the mountain as it provides access to water, sewer, gas, electricity and fiber optics, Stone said.

Gary Chazen, a partner in the project, said at the mountaintop event that work first started at Black Creek in the valley in 1998 and original developer Jimmy Chapin was bought out in 2007.

The size of the new Aetna Mountain piece of Black Creek amounts to about 2,500 acres, Chazen said.

The new boulevard-style road, which has a median and two lanes with 17 feet of pavement apiece, was partly funded with the help of a $9 million tax-increment financing agreement with the city and county, Chazen said. Passed about a decade ago, the project was the first to use tax-increment financing in Hamilton County, though it developed slower than anticipated.

Under tax-increment financing, developers spend the money for a project and are paid back with interest over a period out of additional tax revenues generated by the development. While the project may happen, the city loses for a set time property tax revenues that might have been used for such services as police and fire.

The city's Industrial Development Board was sued twice by Chattanoogan Helen Burns Sharp, founder of the citizens group Accountability for Taxpayer Money, over the approval of the tax-increment financing.

Her lawsuits claimed the board met secretly in 2012 -- and again in 2014 after Sharp won her first lawsuit -- before board members approved and reapproved the 20-year tax-increment financing agreement.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said the Black Creek project is "reaching new heights" and it could become one of the state's biggest mountaintop developments. Home sales and property taxes will provide new revenue for schools and infrastructure in the city, he said.

But Kelly called the Black Creek tax-increment financing "unique and controversial," adding "we'll see" when asked if such financing is an example of a useful economic development tool.

Cory Gearrin, the county's deputy mayor, termed the new road "an engineering feat" and the planned development "a world-class mountain community." He added that new county Mayor Weston Wamp lives in the existing Black Creek community.

Gearrin said he's excited to see how moving forward local officials can continue to look for ways to use tools such as tax-increment financing and payment in lieu of tax agreements.

The first phase of the mountain's development, known as "The Pass," is under construction and will include more than 200 new homes, the developers said. Later phases will include over a thousand more residences, a small commercial village, and amenities, according to Black Creek.

Recently, Black Creek officials said that about 300 acres were donated to the Tennessee River Gorge Trust for a multipurpose public trail network to permanently preserve portions of the mountain for outdoor recreational use.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.