What’s up with Walden’s Lines Orchids “Food City” development? A big decision is coming from the Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission on this coming Monday, Aug. 12, at their regular monthly meeting at 1 p.m. on the 4th floor of the Hamilton County Courthouse at 625 Georgia Ave. The Commission’s staff at the Regional Planning Agency has analyzed this proposal and recommended denial of the rezoning request that would lead the way to a 44,000 square foot regional supermarket (twice the size of Pruett’s), 10,000 square foot retail office space (to add to the 15 empty retail spaces on the mountain), and a fuel station for cars and trucks (on top of coal seams and mining air shafts). Their analysis is rational and recommends denial based on the requirements of zoning laws and area plans, concern for intensity and concentration of the development, and the precedent that this development would have on the mountain. That’s good and appropriate.
There are some interesting twists in the change from the original request for C-1 (Commercial) zone to the current request of VC-1 (Village Center). The VC-1 Village Center zone contemplates a combination of residential areas with proscribed streets, sidewalks, and community areas along with a small scale commercial area for the convenience of the residents in that zone. Under the current application the developer has asked to be exempted from specific requirements that guts the zone of its residential features. The result is that the development is left with only a commercial space of large scale supermarket, retail and fuel center. The developer tries to use the adjacent existing residential and commercial zones in an attempt to make the VC-1 appear to be legitimate rather than the C-1 it really is. The response of the Regional Planning Agency suggests that they’re not buying that fantasy or the large scale nature of the development and have suggested possible conditions that would make the rezoning of a smaller plot (nine acres rather than 13 acres) possible, which significantly would include reducing the size of the retail space to a maximum of 20,000 square feet. Even that set of conditions, which requires a contrived approach, still leaves what is tantamount to commercial zoning.
There have been a lot of posts on social media, news items in the press, letters to the editor, and discussion among residents of the mountain - opposing and in favor. What are people saying?
Many people opposed say this development is far too big for this mountain community and is fraught with problems and issues. They say that it goes against the stated zoning ordinances and community vision as expressed in the Walden Town Mission, "To be a community that attracts families who can live here through the phases of life, provide 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.” They say that this development will create traffic congestion, costly road wear from many new 18-wheelers, noise and light pollution for surrounding neighborhoods. They say that it will create the risk of significant stormwater run-off into old open coal mines and airshafts that will lead to acid pollution of Middle Creek, Rainbow Lake and the Tennessee River. They say that this development will begin a domino effect of commercialization of Taft Highway and denigrate not only property values, but also the character of this community. Like any hit to character, once lost it cannot be regained.
Many people in favor say this development will provide cheaper groceries without going off the mountain. They say a local grocery store is too expensive and only has wine and a few items on the shelf, ignoring the high quality products and services and the community hub that their patio has become. They say the mountain has already changed with additional residential development. They say we need convenience. They say Walden needs to make up a revenue shortfall from the elimination of the Hall Tax (a Tennessee tax on dividends and interest) that provides approximately $300,000 to the town of Walden.
It’s no secret that I’m opposed to this development for all the reasons cited. The reasons offered in favor of this development are worth hearing and I respect that there can be differing views. However, I believe that the scale of this development and the related issues is a very high cost to everyone for the convenience of a few. Many residents go off the mountain for work, doctor’s appointments, recreation, etc. and shop while down there. More and more people of all ages are shopping for groceries on-line and having them delivered with that trend projected to be 70 percent by 2025. That trend adds to risk of failure and a large empty building left behind as an eyesore and sorry legacy. I believe that bringing in a regional chain will be at the expense of a decent local family grocer and a slap to their involvement with the community for 40 years.
The developer minimizes the size of the development in his comments and exaggerates the revenue estimates to Walden and Hamilton County. He talks about a smaller, more community minded store even though this second version is only 5,000 square feet smaller than his first offering and twice the size of Pruett’s. His stated revenue estimates are based on assumptions about property tax and grocery store purchases. They do not take into account the significant trend toward on-line grocery shopping with home delivery. Nor do they consider that Hamilton County will not enjoy an increase in sales tax. It is already collecting that sales tax in Hamilton County sales off the mountain. There is no net increase. Further, there remains the question of the sustainability of this revenue if this large scale development is not successful. Maybe bigger is not better. Maybe it’s really just convenient (and profitable) for the developer rather than the community residents.
Even after the Planning Commission makes their recommendation and regardless of whether it is to deny or approve the zoning, the request goes to the Walden Town Hall. The final decision makers at Walden should think hard about this very large development. I hope that they will respect the vision of the community as stated in the Walden Ridge Plateau Area Plan, The Walden Mission Statement, and the town of Walden Zoning Ordinance. I hope that they will challenge the assumptions and amounts promised by the developer. I hope that they will consider all of the legitimate concerns of the mountain community. I hope that they will hit the pause button and seek input from the community. I hope that they understand that their decision will be their legacy, for good or not.