Amid concern from residents, Hamilton County leaders mull possibilities for McDonald Farm

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Rows of ripening corn cover the acreage at McDonald Farm, along Coulterville Road on June 5. Hamilton County commissioners are mulling the future of the property after residents expressed concerns about rezoning 871 acres of the farm to manufacturing.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Rows of ripening corn cover the acreage at McDonald Farm, along Coulterville Road on June 5. Hamilton County commissioners are mulling the future of the property after residents expressed concerns about rezoning 871 acres of the farm to manufacturing.

After officials last week postponed efforts to rezone a swath of the former McDonald Farm, Hamilton County commissioners expressed a range of opinions Wednesday about the property, stressing the need to preserve at least some of the land for job creation while also urging careful forethought on potential uses.

When the county purchased the property for $16 million in 2021, Hamilton County had "essentially used all of its industrial land," Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista, said during the board's weekly meeting. Many commissioners consented to purchasing the property with the idea of using it for industrial development, he said.

"I would hope we don't give people false hope that we're going to build playgrounds for their neighborhoods," Mackey said. "The McDonald Farm is way too valuable."

Recently, county officials had planned on rezoning 871 acres of the farm to manufacturing, which the mayor's office said would allow for maximum flexibility for recreation and industry while also positioning the site for investment by the state. They opted to delay a County Commission vote by 90 days amid concerns from residents. During a town hall in January, community members raised issues with the lack of recreational space included in zoning documents, the effect on wildlife and the impact that development would have on the rural nature of the area.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County postpones vote on McDonald Farm rezoning)

Commissioner Gene-o Shipley, R-Soddy-Daisy, represents Sale Creek and has asked the executive director of the Chattanooga Audubon Society, Jim Stewart, to form an advisory committee to offer input on the plans for the property.

"We're going to interrupt people that's lived there their entire life whenever we do whatever we're going to do," Shipley said at the commission meeting Wednesday. "Let's give these people an opportunity to have input, work with them and see if we can come to some common ground."

In an interview, Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp said the 871 acres of land contains approximately 250 acres that are prime for industrial development. The county would, however, have to build roads and sewer infrastructure to the site, he said.

Rezoning the land to manufacturing wouldn't have automatically reserved the entirety of that 871-acre parcel for industry, he said, reiterating it would give the county the greatest possible flexibility to use the parcel for other potential uses. Wamp said he understands why residents were wary.

"I think there's a distrust of the government in rural America," Wamp said. "It's true in Sale Creek. I sensed it. I don't blame them. We thought the right thing to do is go back to the drawing board and put together a more specific proposal about what we're doing."

Commissioner Lee Helton, R-East Brainerd, noted in an interview that much of the 871-acre parcel sits in a floodway and wouldn't be feasible for industrial pads.

"What looks like pristine farmland during a heavy rain becomes lakefront property," he said.

During the meeting, Helton said voters in his district want the county to reserve property for its highest and best use, although that remains undetermined. There's plenty of land there, but only several hundred acres are flat. He believes there's opportunity for residential, commercial and industrial uses in addition to parks.

"I think we should all exercise patience and work through the process slowly," he said. "If we act tomorrow, we're not going to have anything there for years, so let's make the best decision we can."

Wamp told commissioners McDonald Farm could serve multiple roles, citing economic development, recreation and tourism.

"We simply have not communicated to that community the intent of the 871-acre rezoning effectively enough," Wamp said. "Because we don't feel like we communicated it clearly enough, we thought the right thing to do was give ourselves 90 days to further clarify."

Echoing Helton's thoughts, Commissioner Steve Highlander, R-Ooltewah, added the county needs to invest the tax money it has collected from thousands of new homes in Ooltewah, Harrison, Soddy-Daisy, Sale Creek and East Brainerd into infrastructure and new roads. Some of the county's winding two-lane roads were built up to 70 years ago and were originally cow paths, Highlander said.

"We're putting thousands of homes on them now," Highlander said, noting he appreciates Wamp forming a committee to assess road needs in unincorporated parts of the county. "In addition to what we're looking at McDonald Farm, we also need to look at infrastructure at roads throughout the county."

Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, said he's open to the idea of investing in additional park space and recreational opportunities in unincorporated parts of the county but officials should carefully choose those locations.

(READ MORE: Industrial development at McDonald Farm not a top priority for Hamilton County mayor)

"Let's not take up very valuable space that has access to rail and highway and natural gas that is amply prepared to begin for new jobs, future jobs in our community as we continue to grow," Sharpe said at the meeting. "We will need to have economic opportunity for the new families that inhabit this great community. We have to keep that at the forefront of our thought."

The 871-acre portion does not include the site of last year's Hamilton County Fair, which commissioners heard Wednesday attracted more than 40,000 people during Veterans Day weekend in November. More than half of those guests — about 22,000 — visited on Saturday. The event has previously been at Chester Frost Park.

As part of its original application, the county was asking to rezone another approximately 230 acres at McDonald Farm to commercial — land that Development Services Director Nathan Janeway said the county is committed to keeping reserved as park space. That's the location of the farm's current homestead and the county fair, he said in a phone call. The request was pulled alongside the original rezoning application.

"It just makes sense to go ahead and rezone that area to a higher classification than (agriculture) so that we've got the ability to not only conduct the fair over and over again at that site but also add some park features that don't exist or need rehab," Janeway said in a phone call.

Staff Writer Emily Crisman contributed to this story.

Contact David Floyd at or 423-757-6249.

  photo  Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The McDonald Farm, which straddles both sides of Coulterville Road, in Sale Creek, was the site of the 2023 Hamilton County Fair. Hamilton County commissioners are mulling the future of the property after residents expressed concerns about rezoning 871 acres of the farm to manufacturing.

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