This story was updated Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, at 6:39 p.m. with more information.
The town of Walden is expected to consider the proposed grocery store project on Sept. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Town Hall.
A Hamilton County planning panel on Monday approved a proposal for a grocery store project in Walden by a split decision, setting up a key vote by town officials next month.
Despite stiff public opposition, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission endorsed the proposed $15 million development and rejected a recommendation by its staff that the 43,000-square-foot store be no larger than 20,000 square feet in size.
The project now goes to the Walden Town Board for its vote on the rezoning scheduled on Sept. 10, said Chattanooga attorney John Anderson, who owns the 15-acre tract at Taft Highway and Timesville Road on Signal Mountain.
"We think 20,000 square feet [for the grocery store] is not enough," Anderson told the planning panel about the proposal that also includes 10,000 square feet of small shop or office space along Taft Highway.
The planning commission, which voted 9 to 4 for the project, also rejected a staff recommendation that there be an internal street network within the project to connect the mix of uses, areas of parking and public spaces.
"This is a good opportunity for Walden to start a town center," Bob Franklin of Franklin Architects, which designed the proposed commercial project, said after the planning commission's vote.
Upwards of 50 people attended the meeting at the Hamilton County Courthouse, many of them wearing matching T-shirt displays against the grocery store and fuel center.
Walden resident Joe Davis called on the panel to deny Anderson's application to rezone most of the tract village-commercial.
"The application isn't a serious zoning request," Davis said. "The application asks to be exempt from essential elements of a village center. The application says that 15 acres and sidewalks make up a village center."
He said that supporters of the proposal "want to get it to the town board of Walden. They're going through the motions."
Sallie Ford, another opponent, said she had a petition with about 1,300 signatures against the proposal.
"We're disappointed," the Sequatchie County woman said following the meeting. But, she said, the fight against the project isn't over.
Still, the project had its supporters, too.
Tatia Willingham Hicks of Walden said her grandfather developed the commercial development in the adjacent town of Signal Mountain and that project faced similar resistance.
She said the proposed new development is 3,000 square feet smaller than the Signal project, which included a 24,000-square-foot Pruett's grocery store.
Lois Killebrew, a longtime real estate broker on Signal Mountain, said the planned grocery store is needed, adding that Pruett's has become more like a Whole Foods.
"We need a grocery store on the mountain that serves young families and retirees that can't afford a Whole Foods," she said.
Killebrew said she understands there's opposition to the proposal, noting that any time new development comes up, "we always have a fight."
John Bridger, the Regional Planning Agency's executive director, said there was a lot of interest in Walden on the proposed size of the grocery store and it surveyed some other spaces.
The Aldi grocery store on Lee Highway is 21,100 square feet, the Walgreens on Broad Street is 16,000 square feet and the Publix on North Market is 48,000 square feet, the staff said.
However, planning commission member Barry Payne said he doesn't like the idea of making square footage requirements.
"I don't like staff putting a 20,000-square-foot limit on a business," he said.
But panel member Jason Farmer said he doesn't think the project fits the village-commercial zone.
"I think the staff made an attempt to help make the project work. But when I look at the village concept I don't see it," he said.
Todd Leamon, another panel member, said that approval of the project by the commission would be "a first step to start to create a sense of place and town center."
Commission member Darrin Ledford said that the town of Walden "will get a lot of say about this next."
Contact Mike Pare at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.