Heated Walden Mayoral Race Highlighted By Competing Visions For Town’s Future

Candidates – Masked and Social Distancing - Going Door To Door And Listening To Voters Despite Pandemic

Friday, October 23, 2020 - by Judy Frank
- photo by Judy Frank

This time last year, Walden Vice Mayor Lee Davis recalled, the idea of running for mayor was the furthest thing from his mind. “I was happy as an alderman and vice mayor.” That is until the highly controversial "Village Center" case came up.

 

His opponent - Walden Mayor William Trohanis, a man who enjoys his job and is waging a vigorous campaign to keep it - doesn’t think the town did anything wrong in approving the center.

Mr. Davis said his position changed as the months passed and he watched his fellow council members go along with investor/developer John Anderson’s bold proposal to rezone the old Lines Orchids greenhouse site. The controversial rezoning – which is currently stalled in Hamilton County Circuit Court – is the first of a series of steps aimed at clearing the way for a large supermarket/gas station/retail complex/parking lot that Mr. Anderson hopes to see built on the property.

Mr. Davis, a long-time attorney, was appalled. “Anybody who’s ever seen a village center can look at this and see that it’s not a village center,” he said. “It’s a strip mall.”

“We have very good, comprehensive zoning criteria in Walden,” he said. “The law is that we can’t arbitrarily ignore those guidelines, and I spent the better part of three months trying to explain that . . .  It became clear to me that the only way I could change things was to become mayor myself.”

The former Lines Orchids property, located in the heart of Walden, was sold two years ago. Since then, Mayor Trohanis said, the question of  what to do with the site has been debated at town council meetings, public hearings and planning commission meetings.

After listening to all sides, he said, he and other officials reached a prudent decision regarding the proposed rezoning.

The mayor said he believes Walden’s land use plan is a guide, not a mandate.

The plan “suggests” where a village center should be located, he said, and “That is where Anderson has it on his site plan.”

Currently, Mayor Trohanis said, there are 50,000 square feet of old greenhouses on the former Lines Orchids site. The grocery store that would anchor the proposed new commercial development contains 43,000 square feet, he said.

Retaining the property’s former commercial zoning would have meant that no building on it could be larger than 5,000 square feet – far too small to meet the needs of any supermarket, he said. Further, it would have meant the town would have had no control over site plan review, landscaping and lighting, color pallete and exterior materials, and other factors.

In contrast, Mayor Trohanis said, rezoning the property as a village center enabled the town to impose 23 conditions on the developers, including choice of landscaping, lighting, and color palette.

That just highlights his point, Vice Mayor Davis said.

“The fact that we have to impose 23 conditions just to make (the developer’s plan) palatable shows how bad it is,” he argued.

Further, he said, approving the requested village center rezoning – ignoring the fact that the proposed development doesn’t meet any of the zoning criteria required for a village center – sets a bad precedent.

“The truth is that right now we don’t have a land use plan,” he said. “Any developer can come in and do pretty much whatever they can get two members of the town council to agree to.”

Interest in the proposed supermarket/fuel center complex has been high among Walden’s 2,180 residents – about 1,400 of whom are registered voters – and in neighboring Signal Mountain and unincorporated portions of both Hamilton and Sequatchie Counties. Standing-room-only crowds packed council meetings and a public hearing held last fall when the proposed rezoning was under consideration.

Opinions are divided, with proponents arguing that Walden’s Ridge residents need a full-service grocery store, and that Walden needs the revenue the commercial development would bring in because of the loss of Hall Tax funding.

If the complex isn’t built, they warned, the town will have to raise residents’ property taxes.

Opponents, just as fervently, claim that unintended consequences of such a development would cost the town far more than any revenue it produced.

For example, they asserted, Walden would no longer be able to save money on public safety by relying on part-time law enforcement officers from the sheriff’s department.  Traffic snarls and crashes – particularly in the Timesville Road/Taft Highway intersection area where the former Lines property is located – would force the town to hire a police force of its own in order to keep people safe, they said.

Election Highlights Variety of Concerns Among Voters

These days, however, with the Nov. 3 election fast approaching, the proposed development is not the number one issue on Walden voters’ minds, Mayor Trohanis and Vice Mayor Davis agreed.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, both candidates – careful to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines – have spent recent weeks going door-to-door, talking to as many voters as possible.

When residents don’t feel safe opening the door, Mayor Trohanis said, “I have had many conversations into Ring Video doorbells that have led to positive returned phone calls.”

Vice Mayor Davis, likewise challenged, said he and the volunteer supporters helping with his campaign, leave hangers on doorknobs inviting people with questions to contact them. They’ve also been sending handwritten postcards to Walden voters, asking for their support.

One way or another, both candidates said, they’ve talked with hundreds of Walden residents about the problems that are facing the town and what the people who live there would like to see done about them.

Nor surprisingly, many of the responses the two have gotten are similar.

Walden residents, many of whom enjoy walking and/or jogging, are worried about speeders and the number of drivers who use their residential streets as shortcuts to avoid traffic on Taft Highway and other main roads.

They want the deteriorating W Road to be cleaned up and repaired, so they can drive up and down the mountain safely. Further, they are sick and tired of being stuck in traffic jams because drivers of tractor trailers and other long vehicles ignore signs warning them they could not get through the W’s treacherous turns.

In addition, Mayor Trohanis said, many of the residents he’s talked to are aware that Walden is losing a major source of revenue, the Hall Tax, and want to know how officials plan to replace that money. Some also “want access to more options for groceries and pharmacy needs, especially during (the pandemic),” he said.

Quality of life issues come up often, Vice Mayor Davis said.

For example, most people already know that the soil in Walden does not perk well, causing problems for people with septic tanks. Consequently, they want the town to retain its two-acre minimum lot size to allow plenty of room for field lines.

Another widespread concern, he noted, is the need for better police protection.

“Walden was founded July 27, 1975, by referendum,” he said, “and (police protection) was one of the main reasons.”

Mayor Trohanis said he, too, has talked to many people dissatisfied with the town’s current law enforcement setup.

“We currently have (a county) officer with limited hours for additional patrol in Walden,” he said. “On occasion I have asked him to focus on speeding while on patrol . . . We need more!”

“I have had conversations with citizens who (favor) restoring our own police force . . . while others agree that adding (an additional) county officer again is the smartest option,” the mayor continued. “I have had many conversations with the town of Signal Mountain regarding a collaborative, contractual agreement for mutual aid services with their police department.”

Past Accomplishments, Future Goals

On paper, the mayor and vice mayor look a lot alike.

For example, both are ardent supporters of Walden assets such as Bachman Community Center, the new WRES fire hall, McCoy Farm and Gardens, and the Pumpkin Patch,

“The development of the 501C at the McCoy property that sat stagnant for 10 years was my most significant accomplishment,” Mayor Trohanis said. “After months of discussions with citizens, my suggestion of the McCoy Memorial Day Picnic was pivotal to taking controversy out and giving focus to the use of the McCoy property as a successful 501(c)(3).

“The end result speaks for itself,” he declared. “It is the jewel of our community and I will always be grateful for the volunteer support that has led to its success.”

His other accomplishments, Mayor Trohanis said, include but are not limited to:

  • Refreshing Town Hall with all new hardy board exterior and new roof and parking lot paving;
  • Pumpkin Patch paving, and active participation in the Regrow the Pumpkin Patch project including overseeing the remodeling of two ADA-compliant restrooms, and
  • Working with the architect and county representatives on the new fire hall.

Vice Mayor Davis has a different perspective on the role he and other town officials have played in running the town and developing its assets.

“I support McCoy Farm and Gardens, Bachman Community Center, Walden’s Ridge Civic League and the Pumpkin Patch,” he said. “I will help these community organizations achieve their goals and secure their legacy . . . (but) it is a wrong for a mayor or alderman to claim credit for recent Walden accomplishments.

“What we as a town have achieved . . . is the direct result of untold volunteer hours performed by our residents and neighbors,” the vice mayor said.

“Previous mayors and aldermen supported these efforts, and in my years as alderman and vice mayor I am happy to have helped,” he continued. “But the acclaim and credit goes entirely to our town residents and neighbors who did the actual work.”

Likewise, he said, it is not the elected officials who keep Walden government operating smoothly.

“As to the day to day running of the town, Fern Lockhart, our town recorder, has been the guiding hand on the wheel,” Vice Mayor Davis said. “Anyone who has attended a Walden town meeting can tell you that. We owe a debt of gratitude to Fern and the more than 20 years of work that she has dedicated to Walden.”

The mayor and vice mayor also differ sharply on what they hope to achieve if they win this election.

“My primary goal is to focus on safety/speeding,” Mayor Trohanis said.

Other high-priority goals, he said, include fiscal responsibility in dealing with the loss of the Hall Tax, increasing pedestrian connectivity, successful execution of a new land use plan which is currently out for bid, and “access to options for groceries.”

Completion of the proposed supermarket/gas station/retail complex/parking lot is not his major goal, he stressed.

But it is an important one, he quickly added.

“My role,” Mayor Trohanis said, “is to oversee the Lines Orchid project with the professional engineering firm we have hired (and) ensure that all 23 conditions are met by the developer, as required by the ordinance.”

Vice Mayor Davis said if he’s elected mayor, his primary goal will be to follow the guidance of “Walden’s current well-established zoning ordinances” to create an effective land-use plan.

“I will coordinate efforts for Walden, the unincorporated part of the county, and Signal Mountain to discuss infrastructure and growth,” he pledged. “A comprehensive land use plan for Walden will help us plan for cohesive commercial development of a size and scope that is appropriate for Walden.”

To help make that happen, Vice Mayor Davis said, he will utilize the things he learned while dealing with developer Anderson’s proposed rezoning and the town’s reaction to it.

“It is not about a grocery store,” he declared. “It is about a risky strip-mall that is the size of a football field (10 times larger than allowed under Walden zoning ordinances). The land speculator figured he could buy the property and persuade the town . . .  to change the rules for him. So far, it has worked . . . No one other than the man who will profit from the rule change has ever come to a town meeting and told us what their plans are. Never. Why?”

“My concern, he continued, “is the unintended consequences to the town. They range from infrastructure (road widening that the future owner will insist Walden pay for) to environment (a failed septic system will forever damage Walden), to the costs associated with policing.  The proposed strip mall (three large commercial buildings and a gas/diesel station) will be on a septic system. 

  “And we will witness increased problems at this site, from fender benders in the parking (lot), to more serious accidents on Taft Highway and the associated crime that this development will bring. We will have to pay for police to provide the needed additional security. This strip mall is an unacceptable risk that is costing Walden money now (with attorney’s fees and costs) and will cost the town financially and in other ways,” he warned.




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