Staff file photo / Attorney John Anderson talks to an overflow crowd during a meeting on a proposed grocery store in Walden in 2019.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — A Bradley County judge on Wednesday heard more than three hours of arguments by attorneys in a lawsuit seeking to strike down a grocery store project in Walden.

Circuit Court Judge J. Michael Sharp also gave the lawyers until April 12 to file written comments in the suit that revolves around a plan to put a 44,000-square-foot grocery store and small shops at Taft Highway and Timesville Road in Walden.

Chattanooga attorney Donald Aho, representing several Walden residents who filed suit, disputed that the 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 of Aldermen 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."

But Chattanooga attorney John Anderson, who also is a principal in project landowner LOP LLC, said the board's actions and those of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission should stand.

Anderson asked that Judge Sharp, who took the case after Hamilton County judges recused themselves, find the ordinance was properly passed.

The attorney want through the decision process used by board members who approved the project in 2019.

"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."

He cited comments by former Walden Mayor Bill Trohanis and current Alderman Sarah McKenzie in which they earlier had offered their reasons for voting for the project.

Anderson said Trohanis noted that while he wanted to keep the town's charm, he was excited about young people and others wanting to move to Walden. Anderson said Trohanis also mentioned "breathing new life into a blighted property" where the project is to go.

The attorney said McKenzie talked about the sales and property taxes generated by the project and how the existing site, the former Lines Orchids location, is "an eyesore."

"This is not haphazard," Anderson said about the decision. "This comes from great study."

He said that the project won't put up "a typical grocery store," citing extensive landscaping of the parking lot and a list of conditions the board put on the development.

Trohanis last November lost a reelection bid to Lee Davis, who had been vice mayor and vigorously opposed the project involving the grocery store.

However, Aho said the town had earlier failed to follow proper procedures in approving the project, including not holding a public hearing, and that the board violated requirements of the town's zoning regulations.

He also said the Planning Commission failed to abide by its procedures when it heard the case.

Aho said that conditions put on the project by the board could apply to a poultry processing plant and that the proposed shopping center is "completely out of character with Walden."

"It will change Walden forever if it's allowed to happen," he said.

Anderson said that a hearing on a separate lawsuit he filed earlier this year related to the case was postponed pending the judge's decision in the case heard Wednesday. But, he said, a restraining order remains in place that another judge granted to stop the town board from revisiting the grocery store project.

Anderson's group won approval for the project in late 2019 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.

Contact Mike Pare at Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.