More than a decade after acquiring Aetna Mountain, the developers of the Black Creek Mountain development gained initial approval Monday for plans to develop the first 170 homes atop the Raccoon Mountain ridge west of downtown Chattanooga.
The Chattanooga/Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission Monday endorsed the rezoning of 50 acres atop Aetna Mountain for residential and limited commercial development in the first development phase atop the 2,600-acre mountain. If the City Council also approves the zoning change and city traffic planners approve the final stretch of the road to be built up the mountain, the developers say they could begin building homes atop the mountain next year.
In the first phase of development on the mountain, developers plan a range of 170 homes, likely priced from $350,000 and up, and a 7-acre commercial center with a community center, convenience store and ultimately a potential hotel or lodge.
"We've found what makes the best community is to have homes at a variety of price points," said Andy Stone, director of development at Black Creek.
The Regional Planning Agency staff recommended the Black Creek developers develop a planned unit development zone atop the mountain for their project and had wanted the planning commission to delay a decision on the developer's requests for a 40.5-acre residential R-TZ zone and a 7-acre Urban General Commercial zone.
But Justin Tirsun, a site consultant with Chazen Engineering, said the planned unit development would require continuous staff approval of any lot changes in the development and could delay or thwart the developer's plans.
Ultimately, the advisory planning board sided with the developers and endorsed the zoning change as requested.
About half of the 2,300 acres will be set aside for trails and conservation along the sides of the mountain and developers said the home lots, including those on the bluffs of the mountain, will be set back so as not to distract from the view of the mountain from those below.
Stone, an engineer who has worked on a variety of residential project in and around Nashville, said Black Creek "is truly unique" in its characteristics and potential.
"I've never seen a more beautiful piece of land so close to a city and it's been exciting to try to unlock the potential of Black Creek," he said.
In 2006, Chattanooga builder Doug Stein and his partners in Black Creek bought the Cummings Cove development as well as a large tract of land on the part of nearby Raccoon Mountain known as Aetna Mountain.
"I'm a golfer and I love the course we have, but this is not just a golf course community and we're not trying to build a retirement community," Stein said Monday after planners endorsed their latest rezoning request. "We're trying to build a community where people of all ages live together and we're saving the very best parts of our property so that everybody in the community can enjoy them."
Stein noted that Lookout Mountain has been attractive, in part, because the best overlook for the city at Point Park was set aside for all to use. That vantage point is now the image on the city seal of Chattanooga.
"The whole vision is to build a community where people want to live and a place where people are not segregated by age," Stein said, noting that one family in Black Creek has four generations living in the same community. "
Black Creek already has nearly 500 homes in the 800 acres of developed property in Lookout Valley around the 18-hole Black Creek championship golf course off of Cummings Highway. Another 74 lots in the valley also have been platted for more home lots.
More than six years ago, Black Creek developers secured a $9 million tax-increment-financing (TIF) deal with the city of Chattanooga to build a new road up Aetna Mountain to open up the top of the mountain for development. Under the TIF — the largest ever approved in Chattanooga — the developers pay to build the road up the mountain but they are able to repay the bond costs for the $9 million road with additional property tax payments made on any new development in the area.
So far, about 2,500 feet of the road up the mountain has been built at a cost of about $1 million. But another 7,500 feet remains to be erected and ultimately is likely to cost more than $9 million "so we're going to have to pay for some of this ourselves," Stone said.
"We've designed the road up the mountain three or four times, but now we've finally got a design that is buildable and meets the city requirements," Stein said.
Helen Burns Sharp, a retired city planner who opposed using taxpayer dollars to subsidize a private residential development, sued the city's Industrial Development Board over the TIF financing for the road up Aetna Mountain. Sharp's lawsuits claimed the IDB met secretly in 2012 and again in 2014 — after Sharp won her first lawsuit — before the panel approved and then reapproved the Black Creek TIF.
The city ultimately agreed to pay Sharp $22,500 to settle the lawsuits.
Black Creek is expected to eventually have more than 1,300 homes, collectively valued at well over $500 million, making the development on of the biggest residential projects in Chattanooga.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340.