Signal Mountain Council Approves Commercial Rezoning Despite Opposition; Many Residents Favor Having WRUD Handle Water For City

Tuesday, March 13, 2018 - by Gail Perry
Jonah Bird is honored by the council
Jonah Bird is honored by the council
- photo by Gail Perry

Despite significant opposition from residents, the Signal Mountain Town Council has approved rezoning 1403 Taft Highway from low density residential to office district. This will permit Noon Development to build a 12,000-square-foot office building with 50 parking places. If approved at the second reading, the corner of Albert Road and Scenic Highway will in essence become the new boundary for the commercial zone.


0001pt;">A public hearing took place at the council meeting before the vote, where citizens lined up to voice their opposition. Many said that expanding commercial development is not in keeping with the small town feel the citizens now experience. Four other lots adjacent to that property, bounded by Miles Road, have been bought by another developer, causing the speakers to fear a domino effect. Rezoning this property encroaches into neighborhoods and sets a precedent, said one citizen, and will make it difficult to disapprove future requests for rezoning to commercial.                                


There are already vacant buildings in the town and the concerns are that what is already there cannot be supported and questions if there is actually a need for more office space.  In the future if this new building cannot be filled, there is the possibility that it might become something other than offices, opponents said. There is already a new building in Walden with 10,000 square feet of office space available, cited several residents. Empty residential buildings are preferable to empty commercial buildings, said another speaker.  


“It’s all about money,” said another. Only the seller and developer will benefit, but neighbors in the area around that property will be hurt by declining home values. The house has been occupied by a couple since 1950 and their son came to the meeting to defend the sale to a developer. He said it had been on the market several times without being sold as residential so he turned to Bob Elliott with Noon Development. It did not sell, said a neighbor of the property, because the asking price was $900,000, when equivalent homes were valued in the $300,000 range. Plus the owner did not allow a for sale sign. They could get more money for it selling it as commercial property, said two speakers.


The council members agreed that they would be in opposition if the development was proposed next door to their own homes, but Vice Mayor Dick Gee said he felt that it was unrealistic to expect that the commercial district will not expand in time. He said he did not expect to see homes being built on the lots between Albert and Miles, which includes the four lots on the block now owned by another developer. This office district is considered a “step-down” from commercial that transitions into residential. Residents countered that there are now many large and small homes along Taft Highway, and it is all residential from Albert Road to Walden. Councilman Dan Landrum suggested that multi-family housing could be an alternative and more acceptable use.


Before the vote, Councilman Robert Spalding said another consideration is the fiduciary responsibility of the council. The increase in taxes received from the new development could help off-set the $800,000 that will be lost when the Hall Tax is eliminated and could help to prevent an increase in property taxes.


The council members and speakers alike thanked Mr. Elliott for being upfront and honest. He has agreed to most conditions that were put on the rezoning. Mr. Elliott told the council that he will do what he has said and that he would like to become an example for other developers in the future. It would be a quality development, he said.


The vote was three for with Councilman Landrum voting against. Citizens will have the opportunity to express their opinions at a second public hearing before a second and final vote.


Another issue which elicited much citizen participation was how the water system on the mountain will proceed. The town now owns and manages the system, buying water from Tennessee American Water. The council is considering either a sale of the entire system or a management agreement with another company. A request for proposal was made and response came from two companies, Tennessee American Water and Walden’s Ridge Utility District.


Most of the residents who spoke at the meeting were in favor of selling the system to Walden’s Ridge, preferring to keep it under more local control, believing that service would be better. Water from Tennessee American comes from the Tennessee River and requires a lot of chemical cleaning, and WRUD gets water from an aquifer which requires the use of fewer chemicals, said several speakers. Continual rate increases from TAW were also given as reasons to use WRUD.


Speaking in favor of TAW, one resident said he has never had a service failure from this company which is currently supplying water to the Signal Mountain system. He said they are committed and have scientific knowledge of the industry. It is already what we are drinking on the mountain, he said. Daphne Kirksey, a mountain resident and also the external affairs manager for TAW, told the council that, in addition to water, her company supports many community projects. Kirk Stafford, also with TAW, said that in 93 years of supplying water to Signal Mountain, there has never been a water quality violation.


The changes proposed for the water system were evaluated by a committee appointed by Town Manager Boyd Veal, and a summation was presented at the council meeting for informational purposes only. TAW has offered to buy the system for $3.4 million with $1.25 million planned for improvements.  WRUD has proposed buying the system for $3.6 million. Water supply would switch from TAW to Hixson Utility. Their plan includes $2.6 million in improvements. Both companies would offer to hire current employees of the Signal Mountain system, would have a representative from the town on an advisory board and both have agreed not to raise rates for the first five years. WRUD has also submitted a management proposal for $900,000 a year.


A third option remains, said the city manager, which is for the town to continue to own and operate the system. He said that he first needed to see the proposals to determine how it equates to what the town can do, and compare costs.


Three public meetings will be held in March and April where residents can question both companies. The first is scheduled for March 22 at 6:30 p.m. in the municipal gym.


Afterward, Valoria Armstrong, president of Tennessee American Water, said, “Our commitment to the town of Signal Mountain is to provide outstanding customer service, to continue delivering essential and quality water, to invest in the community including as a new taxpayer and to develop  a strategic approach to upgrade the water system.


“Our water quality record speaks for itself,” Ms. Armstrong said. “In our 130-year history serving the greater Chattanooga community, we have not had a violation with our regulators. We participate in the voluntary Partnership for Safe Drinking Water, challenging ourselves to surpass EPA standards and we do.


“With Tennessee American Water as an even more engaged partner, the town will free up funds designated for water infrastructure and reinvest them in other community priorities,” Ms. Armstrong said. “The town will also gain a new taxpayer that will provide even more support for community-based initiatives.”


The council voted to approve a new Land Use Plan that was presented by Jennifer Williams from the Southeast Tennessee Development District, which provides staffing for the planning commission for the town of Signal Mountain. The plan has taken into consideration changes that have occurred since the last Land Use Plan was done in 2008, including population growth of over 1,000 residents. The goal of the update is to make it factually correct when any new development, either residential or commercial, is being considered. Public meetings will be held next to hear what the community feels is important before a final vote. The plan will be available online in a few days, said City Manager Veal.


Approval was also given to contract with Johnson, Murphy and Wright in the amount of $24,800 for the 2017-2018 audit. An agreement was approved for engineering and architectural services in the amount of $9,450 to update Marian and Driver Fields. Implementation of the plan is expected to cost $57,500. A grant to fund the work has been applied for and the project will proceed only if the 50/50 grant is received.


Jonah Bird was named “Mayor for a Minute.” He was honored by the council for many accomplishments including being Senior Class President, member of the Honor Society, being in the International Baccalaureate program, a National Merit Scholar, having a GPA of 3.97 and an ACT score of 34. He has been captain of the cross country and track teams, and has been a swim team coach and lifeguard at the Signal Mountain pool. He has been accepted at Vanderbilt University for 2022.

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