The Town of Walden faces a critical turning point. The mayor and two aldermen are confronting what I believe to be a watershed moment in our town's 44-year history. I ask the Walden board to listen to more than 1,400 of us in the 37377 ZIP code who respectfully urge you to deny a proposed grocery store development in our small town. A first reading and vote will take place Tuesday at 6:30.
Yes, John Anderson's proposal offers some plateau residents the convenience of a shorter drive to buy groceries and gas. However, this development threatens to damage the value of our residential property by making Walden less special.
The Anderson Group has employed a fine architect. But construction of an oversized supermarket will overwhelm the surrounding area and could easily trigger an uncontrolled domino fall of land parcels leading to a hodgepodge of strip-center sprawl. This would turn Walden into just another suburb. Moreover, Walden's finances would be dependent on sales taxes from the grocery industry, which is undergoing classic disruption as Amazon, the Aldis and the Uber Eats put the traditional chains at risk. Who knows which tenant would occupy the 44,000-square-feet building in five to 10 years and whether it would be able to generate a meaningful level of sales tax revenues?
The town's 2002 zoning ordnance states its purposes are to "maintain rural character and small scale of development, protect important natural resources, protect and enhance property values, and encourage harmonious and integrated development patterns that are economically feasible and in harmony with the community." Allowing a developer to push through an oversized commercial project in the heart of our small town puts us in stark conflict with these lofty goals.
Approval of this project will likely precipitate legal actions over: 1) the proper application of Walden's zoning ordinance, and 2) other issues of stormwater runoff, abandoned coal mines and land use. These distractions will waste town energy and taxpayer dollars.
Now is the perfect time for Walden to engage a professional to facilitate land use planning involving Walden residents, owners and other stakeholders. The group would be charged with recommending appropriate commercial areas, future building limits and other measures while maintaining a balance between community good and landowner rights. The mountain population is growing, and the town must grow wisely with it.
Walden has a rich historical landscape: Anderson Pike, the W Road, Summertown, Mabbitt Springs, the Fairmount Academy, the Little Brown Church, moonshiners' stills, coal mines, Nathan Bachman's beautiful home, Emma Bell Miles' first homestead, Creed Bates' apple orchard and many attractive homes on two-acre lots. And we should not forget the Conner Toll House, which would be in the path of strip center sprawl. We must take good care of what our ancestors have passed on to us.
Many parts of the U.S. have lost their way through haphazard development, spot zoning and other capricious departures from sound policy, resulting in unattractive buildout and loss of community identity. The past warns us to plan first and act second.
Our town must move forward wisely. The well-being of Walden is in our aldermen's hands, and this decision will be their legacy. We encourage them, the town's stewards, to approach this moment with great care. It has enormous implications for the future.
Frank "Mickey" Robbins, an investment adviser at Patten and Patten, is a longtime resident of Walden.