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Contributed rendering by Franklin Architects / A proposed Walden grocery store would be part of a $15 million project.

This story was updated with additional information on Monday, July 3, 2021, at 5:15 p.m.

A Bradley County judge has ruled against a Chattanooga landowner who proposed a grocery store in Walden, saying that an ordinance passed to permit the supermarket project is illegal.

"The court finds that the ordinance as enacted not conform to the plain terms, guidelines, or the intent of the Village Center Zone applicable to the town of Walden," said Bradley Circuit Court Judge J. Michael Sharp.

Sharp said in the ruling that the town board's 2019 approval of the ordinance was "illegal, arbitrary and capricious."

But Chattanooga attorney John Anderson and his LOP LLC group, who own a 15-acre tract at Taft Highway and Timesville Road and had sought the grocery store, said Monday he plans to appeal the ruling this week.

Also, Anderson said the group is pursuing development of the property as it is commercially zoned, noting it could hold a gas station and convenience store.

Gary Smith of Walden, who was one of the citizens who filed suit against the town board that approved the project and LOP, said Monday the court's decision is "a strong statement upholding the rule of law."

"The court makes clear that the Walden town board must follow state law and the Walden zoning ordinance," he said. As to LOP pursuing development under existing zoning, Smith said the property belongs to LOP, it's zoned for certain structures and "I don't have problem with that."

Meanwhile, Sharp said in the ruling that the ordinance passed by the board approving the proposed 44,000-square-foot grocery store and small shops does not require the mix of uses as called for by the town's zoning regulations.

The judge said the ordinance approved by the board also doesn't require an internal street network, nor contain a blend of commercial and residential uses as the regulations intend.

In addition, the ruling said the board was required to resubmit a modified ordinance to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission for its review and to hold another public hearing after the first reading of the measure. But in the Walden case, that did not happen, the judge said.

Anderson and LOP won approval for the $15 million project in late 2019 from the town board after some contentious public meetings.

But in early 2020, some Walden and Hamilton County citizens filed the lawsuit against the town and the developers to stop the project.

Hamilton County judges recused themselves and the case was assigned to Judge Sharp, who heard attorneys argue in March.

Chattanooga attorney Don Aho, who represented the citizens, had disputed that the proposed project is a village center as defined by the town.

"This is an issue that goes through the entire proceeding — whether this is a village center or zoned as a village center," he said. The attorney termed the project simply a large grocery store and two out-parcel buildings with a 200-space parking lot.

Aho listed a variety of reasons why an ordinance earlier approving the project by the Walden board should be invalidated.

"The town misused its zoning authority," he said. "We know from a common sense standpoint, this isn't a village center. The town must follow the law. It's not dropping a big shopping center in a former orchid farm and calling it good."

After a town election late last year and a change of leadership in which Chattanooga attorney and project critic Lee Davis beat former mayor Bill Trohanis, the board indicated it was to hear a resolution calling for the town to reverse its support for the grocery store project.

But before the resolution could be heard, Anderson filed a suit and obtained a temporary restraining order related to the proposed resolution.

Anderson had asked that Judge Sharp find the ordinance was properly passed.

"There's nothing that shows this was not fairly debatable," Anderson said, adding the town board had the power to waive some of the village center criteria. "Nowhere does it say that residential has to be part of a village center."

In 2020, Food City was shown in a document as the identity of the proposed grocery store in Walden.

Earlier, another developer and Food City tried unsuccessfully to put a supermarket in the nearby town of Signal Mountain.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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