Lookout Mountain residents said Thursday night they want a doctor office on the mountain, but most indicated not at Verlenden Park on the Tennessee side.
The Lookout Mountain School Auditorium was filled to near capacity at a town forum concerning the location of a medical clinic for Dr. Bill Moore Smith. The size of his current office next to the Fairyland Pharmacy needs to expand by the end of 2013 in order to be in compliance with government regulations. Mayor Carol Mutter told the crowd that this would be only an informational meeting and that nothing would be decided.
Dr. Smith has been in negotiations with Lookout Mountain, Ga. to build a facility at the new planned, Town Center, but delays with that development have caused him to consider other locations.
Former Mayor Greg Brown told the crowd that this project was started with a casual conversation, where he told Bill Moore Smith “too bad we can’t find some place in Tennessee for you.” That got the ball rolling, and several vacant commercial buildings and a couple of undeveloped parcels of land owned by the town, including Verlenden Park, were viewed. The developer, David Devaney, and Dr. Smith moved forward on the property at the corner of Watauga and Scenic Highway after determining that it would suit the needs for the medical office.
Town Attorney Brian Smith then researched the deed and found that it had been donated to the town in the early 1970’s for general use with no restrictions. He found that it has never been designated by the town as a park, even though it is used by the residents as such and is maintained by the town’s public works department. Several years after it was acquired, the land was used as a place to deposit rock and dirt that came from building the sewer system. Dwight Montague, town consultant, contacted Bobby McDaniel who had been head of the Public Works Department for 30 years, to verify that nothing toxic had been put there.
On one corner of the property is a grove of trees where a small grave yard is located. There are seven or eight small grave markers believed to be from the 1800’s, from a yellow fever epidemic. This was before the town was incorporated in 1890. Mr. Devaney has said that before the city could buy it, sonar would be done to locate all the graves so there would be no guess-work. If the development goes forward, it would not disturb this area. The usable space would determine the size of the building. The doctor’s office alone would be 3,000 square feet. If a physical therapy office was added, the size would increase to 5,000 square feet.
Mayor Mutter asked Mr. Montague to explain where the town’s revenue came from. He told the crowd that the most income is from property taxes, totaling $1.8 million. Around $600,000 comes from the Hall Income Tax, which provides around 20 percent of the town’s income. Some money comes from state sales taxes, and from leasing the antennas on the mountain. He said, $40,000 is derived from the parking meters around Point Park. He said the Hall Tax is in a precarious state since Governor Bill Haslam is attempting to make Tennessee retirement friendly by removing that tax on investments. Mayor Mutter added that the citizens need to be mindful of revenue coming to the city and that property taxes would be received from a medical office.
Most everyone in attendance agreed that having a medical clinic on the mountain would be an asset to the community - its location was the point of contention. Mayor Mutter talked about other locations that have been mentioned for the building. There are some vacant spaces in the existing commercial buildings on Scenic Highway; however, Erlanger Health System has specified that there be five parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of building, and that it must be handicap accessible. With those requirements, parking becomes the problem at that location.
The Baptist Church on Scenic Highway is no longer available since it has been leased to Calvary Chapel, currently on Broad Street, for 10 years with an additional 10-year option. The location where the public works department sits has been considered, but there is nowhere to relocate it. Also, gas and diesel tanks are now underground on that property. A lot on N. Watauga Road behind town hall can be investigated further, but that land has a steep drop-off which might present a problem. Charles Whitener, landlord for the Mountain Market, offered property behind his building which would require ingress and egress cooperation with the town’s maintenance shed. Another resident mentioned some Davenport property in Hinkle. Mayor Mutter said any ideas or suggestions would be appreciated.
Immediate neighbors to Verlenden Park were given the first chance to comment on the proposal. Each stated their opposition to that location for various reasons. One of the best things about Lookout Mountain is that it is not developed, said Carter Parham. He said he has made his career by trying to make the mountain beautiful and asked the commissioners to consider “alternatives to putting a bulldozer to our green spaces.” Another neighbor that borders the property in question said he was vehemently opposed to an office being there. He said he sees it being used as a park all the time. Jim Sheffield said he had moved from Atlanta because the area he left had been developed bit by bit until it no longer had the same sense of neighborhood that it used to have. “Once you sacrifice a green space, it’s gone forever and you don’t get that choice again,” he told the commissioners while asking them to find another place to put the office. Clare White Gruber, who lives across the street, asked Georgia to get their town center in gear and build it so the entire mountain wouldn’t be having this problem.
Mark Caldwell, who owns the largest amount of commercial property on the mountain, told the room that the property taxes from this development would only amount to a few thousand dollars for the town. He emphasized that the practice would be an asset no matter where it is, on the Tennessee or Georgia side, which was the sentiment expressed by everyone that spoke. He said Dr. Smith would be his first choice for a tenant and said he could not understand why it had not yet worked out with Lookout Mountain, Ga. He stated that he could see both sides and that the town needs to consider this proposal. Ted Caldwell expressed his thanks to the commissioners for taking on a job that they know won’t please everyone. His thoughts were that if it cannot work in any existing commercial space or the Town Center in Georgia or another more suitable location, then the best option, by default would be Verlenden Park.
Henry Glascock, a real estate appraiser, told those gathered, that this facility would be a “special purpose building”, which would be difficult to adapt to other uses if the doctor’s office closed in the future. He also said that from a real estate point of view, the consequences of putting an office there would be that the adjacent neighbors’ homes would lose value. His choice is to leave the space green. Garnet Chapin, a professional urban designer and planner said that he doesn’t believe an old cemetery is the place to put this structure. The town center location in Georgia already has the commercial zoning needed and a professional architectural plan for the proposed development of Dr. Smith’s office. That would be the right place for it to be, he said. Anyone interested should attend the next Council meeting in Georgia on Sept. 17.
Developer Devaney told the room that Dr. Smith is sensitive to the will of the residents, and if the location proves to be divisive in any way that he will keep looking. They would welcome hearing any options and would rather renovate than build.
Mayor Mutter made it clear to the audience that Greg Brown had not made an offer of the land. It had only been mentioned as a possibility. If the process goes farther, the next step would be to have the Regional Planning Agency review the rezoning request and a notice would be posted so anyone could speak for or against the plan. That organization then makes a recommendation to the town commissioners who have the final say. At that point, appraisals would be made. She said “it is not going to happen instantly or maybe not at all.”