The developer of the biggest master-planned community in Chattanooga says the $300 million endeavor is being held up due to repeated delays by the Tennessee Valley Authority in its review of the proposed riverfront project on the north shore just below the C.B. Robinson Bridge.
The project in Riverview, known as Riverton, was acquired by John Thornton's Thunder Enterprises in 2019. Thornton planned to start building the 210-acre residential complex last year after submitting applications for a boat and dock permit to TVA nearly two years ago.
"It's been rather frustrating that we submitted our applications in May and June of 2020 expecting to get our permits and things squared away early in 2021, and it hasn't happened," Thornton told TVA President Jeff Lyash during a Chattanooga Rotary Club luncheon Thursday. "We keep getting delay dates and delay dates. I know TVA has a lot of other bigger issues to focus on, but our investors and others are really concerned about these dock permits."
Thornton said the Riverton developers have done everything correctly and continue to respond to TVA requests for more information. Although Thornton initially considered building a canal and inland marina on part of the site, he abandoned those plans and is looking instead for permission to develop boat docks for residents on the Tennessee River between the C.B. Robinson Bridge and the Rivermont Community Park and tennis courts.
The Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933 confers on TVA broad authority to conserve and protect the Tennessee River and the shoreline along the 652-mile river path. In particular, section 26a of the TVA Act requires that the authority's approval be obtained prior to the construction, operation or maintenance of any dam, appurtenant works or other obstruction affecting navigation, flood control or public lands or reservations along or in the Tennessee River or any of its tributaries.
Lyash said the issuance of boat dock permits for shoreline development was important to him, and he said the Riverton project is being carefully reviewed "to protect the interests of everyone.
"These processes are designed to balance all of the interests carefully," Lyash said. "We're subject to the National Environmental Policy Act and respecting the rights of everyone, including those who use the waterways and the Native Americans who may have meaningful cultural assets on these properties. We work extremely hard for all of these permits, including for Riverton."
Thornton urged TVA to bring in an outside consultant to consider how it processes its requests and permits shoreline development to help streamline development and provide a more timely review of proposals.
On the Hiwassee River in East Tennessee, Check Into Cash Founder Allan Jones said TVA was cooperative in his family's request for a boat dock, but the permitting process took over three years to complete.
"We're finally building the dock now," Jones said.
Thornton, a longtime developer of luxury homes, is completing the development of Jasper Highlands on Jasper Mountain near Kimball and is beginning to build River Gorge Ranch atop Aetna Mountain in Marion County. Thunder Enterprises' mountaintop developments west of Chattanooga have required building roads, water systems and other infrastructure and represent some of the biggest mountaintop residential developments in Tennessee with a combined estimated value of up to $2 billion once they are fully developed.
Thornton said permitting for the rural mountaintop projects has generally been easier than getting the OK to install docks in the Tennessee River at Riverton within the city of Chattanooga.
TVA said on its website delays in the review of any 26a permit application can result from complications such as incomplete applications, modifications to the project after the application was submitted, potential impacts to sensitive resources (archaeology, wetlands, mussels, endangered species, etc.), potential impacts to TVA's interests in navigation or flood control, or unresolved violations and encroachments. There may also be delays associated with obtaining state permits that are required before TVA can issue a federal permit.
Thornton insists he has complied with all of TVA's requests.
"When they tell us to jump, we start jumping and we ask them if that is high enough," Thornton said after talking with Lyash. "We have submitted everything that they have asked us to submit, and we've done it in a timely manner. We're at their mercy, and we're waiting on them."
A year ago, Thunder Enterprises received approval from the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission for an initial plan to develop over 400 home sites on the 210-acre Riverton site, which includes the 9-acre Lupton City Golf Club. But TVA is yet to sign off on dock permits sought for the riverfront lots in the development.
Thunder Enterprises acquired the site three years ago from Riverton LLC, which had bought the site for $8.1 million from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee in 2018.
BlueCross had once planned to build its corporate headquarters on the parcel but finally decided to construct the corporate campus atop Cameron Hill in downtown Chattanooga instead.
Thornton said the 26a permit from TVA is needed before the Army Corps of Engineers or city permits may be granted for development along the river.