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This rendering shows a proposed site for a town center in Walden. / Rendering by Franklin Architects
"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot." — Joni Mitchell

You've worked hard to find just the right countryside, the right community, the right neighborhood, the right home.

Maybe you're a newcomer, or maybe you've lived there all or most of your life, but suddenly one day you awake and learn there's big change coming.

Maybe a new "village center" anchored by yet another grocery store, pharmacy and gas station is planned on what was once an idyllic green space on the main artery you travel to reach your home.

Or perhaps your nightmare is to learn that a proposed new sewage treatment plant is being drawn up just a hop, skip and jump from you.

Maybe the once quaint suburban street that led you home has gradually become a concrete jungle of mismatched signs and not-so-family-friendly businesses.

Chances are, no matter what your address, sooner or later you'll suddenly see your paradise — or at least a piece of it — seeming to slip away.

This is true today in Walden on Signal Mountain on 23 acres where Lines Orchids was a quiet agricultural business tucked off Taft Highway behind a wide expanse of grass in a mom-and-pop kind of community. But come Tuesday — upon the second reading of a new zoning ordinance — a new crop of stores (the developer and town officials prefer to call this a village center) is likely to take root. The center will be anchored by a grocery store of unknown brand (the third in a 6.3-mile stretch of U.S. 127 that runs over Walden's Ridge, through Signal Mountain's lone stop light and the Sequatchie/Hamilton County line).

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Read the transcript of the Walden zoning debate

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Also mentioned in the plan would be the mountain's third pharmacy and fourth gas station — all within that same 6.3 miles. By most estimates, there are about 8,500 residents in the plateau community that includes the towns of Signal Mountain and Walden, as well as the unincorporated areas of Fairmount and Lone Oak — altogether perhaps 3,500 households.

Many Signal Mountain, Walden, Fairmount, Lone Oak and other plateau residents already have voiced opposition to this plan. They fear that if Walden leaders place these stores — and their tax revenues — ahead of a collaborative land use plan, residents will gradually begin to see the Dayton Boulevard-ization of Taft Highway, the main artery through the idyllic and largely rural/residential Cumberland Plateau community that stretches into Sequatchie County before dropping off the mountain toward Dunlap.

This paradise-lost tale also has played out in the past year in the Mahan Gap community of Ooltewah where the Hamilton County Commission found itself at total loggerheads with residents who were thoroughly outraged at the thought of a proposed new north Hamilton County sewage treatment plant being plopped down in their midst.

We could think of the Ooltewah situation as a perfect and understandable example of NIMBY — Not In My Back Yard — thinking.

Brainerd residents came too late to the idea of zoning and community planning. Long ago, some village center-type development there gave way to increasing construction, and now Brainerd residents and their representatives on the Chattanooga City Council find themselves playing catch-up to halt the degradation of decades-old strip centers — especially from payday loan shops that for a time popped up seemingly in every block.

And when's the last time you tootled down Dayton Boulevard, which in places is now in danger of beginning to look like Rossville Boulevard.

The death spiral doesn't stop on the thoroughfares: In too many places, the homes in neighborhoods behind those once-proud passages have come to be tallied among the county's lowest property values.

And don't be fooled. This really is all about money.

 

How did we get here?

Just over 22 years ago, the Walden's Ridge Plateau neighborhoods had an area land use plan.

That 1997 plan, prepared by the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission, started like this: "The Walden's Ridge Plateau Area Plan represents a collaborative effort among the local elected officials of Hamilton County, the Town of Signal Mountain, and the Town of Walden to address growth and other related issues that face the plateau area. This plan covers a portion of the Walden's Ridge area from the Tennessee River Gorge north to the North Chickamauga Creek headwaters."

Are you asleep yet? Of course you are. That's the trouble with plans. All that collaborative effort is exhausting.

The "vision" of the plan was slightly better:

"To be a community that attracts families who can live here through the phases of life, provides for an orderly and cohesive development pattern that maintains a small town atmosphere with rural character and green spaces, and preserves pristine natural areas for the enjoyment of its residents."

That's more like it. Now we're happy to slip off into dreamland. Paradise will remain paradise.

Until we wake up and realize that our town or city or county officials are looking for new revenue.

In Walden's case, blame it on the lost Hall income tax. Long the state's only income tax, it levied a 6% tax on the investments and dividends of the wealthier among us. About a third of its revenue is returned to the city or the county in which the taxpayer lives. But the Tennessee General Assembly voted to end it, beginning in 2017. It will be completely phased out in 2021.

Walden officials have said that the Hall tax has provided 40-60% of the town's revenue. In June, the town council passed a 10 cent property tax increase — on top of a 2 cent hike the year before.

But earlier this month, in passing the new zoning to accommodate a developer's plan for the village center, Walden Alderwoman Sarah McKenzie was quick to list added revenue as an advantage for approving change.

"The local option sales tax and property tax from the development should be considered not just as a replacement for the Hall tax but also allowing Walden to continue to provide the services and improvements to amenities without an undue burden on the homeowners," she said at the Oct. 8 Walden town meeting.

As for Ooltewah's dreaded waste treatment plant? Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and county commissioners are counting revenue pennies, too. Without proper sewers and someplace for them to empty, development in the north end of Hamilton County is severely slowed. Without that development, and the added property tax revenue it brings, county budgets are held hostage to status quo. Commissioners bowed to community pressure in December, but they're still looking to site the plant somewhere.

And for streets like Ringgold Road, Brainerd Road and Dayton Boulevard, finding a way back to rising property values presents its own special set of challenges.

 

How do we fix it?

So you wake from your nightmare and find that paradise is not just a nightmare. It's also a maze.

Who knew: Community planning needs care and feeding far more often that once every 20 or so years.

It isn't just about beautiful countrysides and tasteful business development and clean roadsides and sidewalks. It's also about money. And money never rests.

Roads don't repave themselves. Police and deputies don't work for free. Your garbage and your flushes really don't magically disappear. Schools eventually fall down, and the same arithmetic of 50 years ago doesn't teach a kid to program the robots that power today's manufacturing. Even the elected officials who run our towns and counties eventually should get raises.

That means that if we value our own little piece of paradise, we have to get involved and push planning — early and often.

Looking again at Walden, the question isn't just about a grocery store, and mountain residents are hugely divided.

Speaking of the many concerns, Vice Mayor Lee Davis cast the only "no" vote among three aldermen during the first reading of the proposed zoning change. He said he thought the town should create a new land use plan first.

Davis ticked off his concerns: What's being called a village center isn't a village center, but rather three commercial buildings that are all considerably larger than what the current zoning allows on a smaller plot than zoning requires; the developer hasn't shown how waste will be treated on a mountain top where the soil doesn't perk and the community has no sewer line; and without a traffic study, the development has only one curb cut onto a two-lane road with no traffic light but plenty of fog.

And what of police protection in a town that currently has no dedicated police, relying instead on Signal Mountain and Hamilton County Sheriff's Department?

"That parking lot's going to be lit up till 11 o'clock at night. Where does trouble happen after 9 p.m.? Where the lights are, right? The only lights from the Sequatchie County line down to Pruett's will be sitting right at the front out there. Top of the W Road to the top of Taft Highway. So if we're thinking about what are going to be the revenues to the town, we've got to think about what are the unintended consequences and costs to the town. If we have a store that's selling liquor and/or wine/beer and it's selling gas and diesel, you're going to have people up there. You're going to have trouble," Davis said.

None of the challenges for revenue and none of the concerns of unintended consequences are insurmountable. But they need thought and discussion and negotiation and planning. That's true whether its Walden trying to land a very big-box grocery store, or Ooltewah fighting or accepting a waste plant, or Brainerd grappling with a 1970s retail strip that has outlived its usefulness in the age of Google and Amazon delivery.

Walden's Davis, in repeating his plea to slow down and plan better, succinctly states the obvious:

"If this is a good idea, it will be a good idea a year from now or six months from now."

John Bridger, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, said communities prosper best when they use a place-based perspective for planning. He points to Chattanooga's North Shore as an example of reinventive growth.

Starting with Coolidge Park, the Walnut Street Bridge, and an early start-up business — the Mudpie restaurant — one street corner sparked a change that now has spread to become a corridor on the once-decrepit Cherokee Boulevard.

It can work in any ZIP code, Bridger says.

"We create connections to our town's story, bringing to the fore things we like about our past that we want to see carried forward in the present. That's how you start a plan."

Contact Pam Sohn at psohn@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6346.

More comments from local officials

John Bridger, executive director RPA:

"Change does not mean bad change. [Often it means] what do we want to protect. One of the challenges of [just relying on] past planning efforts is to keep everything the same ... that's not a good strategy. We know have to change. Change is happening to us even as we speak. ... We can't kick the can down the road."

***

Mayor William Trohanis, who voted to approve the change on first reading:

The beauty and charm of our town is attracting young families moving to the mountain for the first time or in some cases returning a stone's throw from a childhood home. At the same time, residents that have been here for decades are creating new memories with loved ones and grandchildren in spaces given new life by the hard work of this board, volunteers, and our community. ...

As the composition of our community changes, so do the need of our citizens. ...

All of us, myself included, are adamant about preserving the character and the charm of this city that we love.There is an opportunity before us that if done right will amplify the values, the charm, and the attractiveness of our town. The town has the ability to impose conditions attached to the center that the developers are required to meet. We can control the exterior materials, the signage to ensure the tranquil feel of our community is preserved.

Regarding environmental concerns, there are standards for Hamilton County and for stormwater runoff and the state of Tennessee has strict controls for sewage. These are the experts in this area that we, like many local municipalities, defer to. The developer has not provided any plans for either of those simply because the rezoning has not happened. If this does become an issue, there's an extensive engineering plan required that has to be submitted for both things. If it doesn't meet the requirements, a building permit will not be issued until it is accurately developed. Period. ...

Unfortunately, our town is divided on this topic. ...

The tax dollars play a critical role in providing the services we have become dependent upon ... .

***

Alderwoman Sarah McKenzie, who voted to approve the change on first reading:

The local option sales tax and property tax from the development should be considered not just as a replacement for the Hall tax but also allowing Walden to continue to provide the services and improvements to amenities without an undue burden on the homeowners. Street paving, developing walking trails, parks, recreation facilities and planned improvements at McCoy are not going to come free.

A full-service grocery store on the mountain, I believe, is going to happen. ... If it's developed outside the town limits, we lose control over the architectural elements, the signage, the lighting, the landscaping, and the site plan, as well as the sales tax and property tax revenue.

I truly believe that the [current] site is an eyesore. ... The additional trees and green spaces on the site plan offer more landscaping and green space than currently exists on the site. ...

This has been portrayed as a big box development with a mega grocery store and a strip mall and will lead the way to Walden looking like Gunbarrel Road. A grocery store, to me, is not a big box. ...

One point that's been suggested is that the rezoning request would pave the way for future rezoning and more commercial development. I don't know if this has historically been true or not, but I do know that our population does not meet the minimum requirement for most chain retailers and we are geographically limited in growth. You're not going to see a Home Depot or a Target going up in the Town of Walden or the entire area for that matter.

Regarding the land-use plan, I firmly believe that the zoning and land-use plans should be updated, and just because an existing zoning ordinance exists doesn't mean it's good for all time. We are very past due in updating these, given the growth on the mountain. However, a land-use plan is a process and will take time. In the meantime, if we delay this, the grocery store will be developed a couple of miles down the road and we will have missed an opportunity.

As far as maintaining rural character, I don't think that the Taft Highway corridor of Walden is rural.

***

Vice Mayor Lee Davis, who voted against the change on first reading:

We are not being faced with a situation where the owner of Lines Orchard has said business has changed, times have changed and I need to change my business model and therefore, I'm asking you to allow me to carry out an enterprise to benefit the Town of Walden. Mr. John Anderson, who is a developer and an attorney, recognized an opportunity and in that opportunity he wants us to change fundamentally, entirely our zoning in the Town of Walden. That's a basic fact. ...

We're all mostly friends and neighbors and I think we can all agree that there's a way to move forward, but I think if we move forward without a plan and specifically without a land-use plan, I think we're going to run into is this problem over and over again, because if we adopt this proposed zoning change, we are scrapping our entire zoning history of the Town of Walden. ...

This is what we have in front of us. We have a commercial building that is being sold to us is a village center. ... This is not a village center. ... It's a grocery store. It's a commercial building that I have serious and grave concerns about what's going to happen if we approve this. ...

[Regarding septic concerns] the only responsible course of action for us is to demand whoever is going to build out there come forward and show us the plan of what's going to go in the ground and how it's going to work. We don't want Moccasin Bend smells on our Timesville Road and Taft Highway. We just don't. We need to stop it on the front end. ... [The grocery store will not own the land and will be managed by a company out of state. Similarly the developer will not own the store, so enforcing environmental problems will be difficult.] The first time an 18-year-old kid working at the grocery store throws a slop bucket full of chemicals down into that septic system, it kills the biological material down there. The system is dead. And then ... it falls upon us as the town ... and we go to the state and we say well, you issued this permit. It's not working. What's the problem? They're going to say that is an enforcement issue. Talk to your codes officer. ...

Everybody says that well, we'll be getting sales tax off the grocery store. There is a risk. If he's wrong, that thing could be a dead dinosaur. How many people enjoy driving past K-Mart in the last 15 years after it closed it lights? Do you think that that increases or decreases property values? ...

I think if we build without understanding the traffic study — there was a failing grade on that coming out left onto Taft Highway. You want to risk one of your kids or one of your friends, one of your neighbors getting killed coming left on Taft Highway because somebody said it will be fine as it is? I don't. ...

Those are the concerns that I have. My recommendation would deny the motion. Not because we don't want a commercial development. We want a commercial development. Because it's premature and there too many unanswered questions.

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