Signal Mountain residents were heard loud and clear Wednesday night when the town's five-member council voted to deny a rezoning request that would allow for a large grocery store in the town's center.
The contentious topic was up for a vote by the council for the first time Wednesday since the town's Planning Commission voted to deny the request in April to rezone a portion of a parcel at 617 Cauthen Way from low-density residential district to highway commercial district. The Keith Corporation, which owns the parcel, as well as the Signal Crossing 1 and 2 shopping centers that abut it and Signal Plaza across the street, planned to build a 38,000-square-foot Food City behind what is now Signal Crossing 1.
While council members said they liked the opportunity to bring the store to the town's center, they said they couldn't ignore the majority of town residents against the development. About 80 people packed into the council chambers Wednesday for the special meeting, with more gathering outside. Many residents donned green shirts that read, "NO BIG BOX" and "Signal Mountain voters for sustainable growth."
"I've had five people tell me they're for it," said council member Amy Speek. "I can't go anywhere the last month. I'm at work getting text messages from people I don't know. To me, that's not the silent majority ... that is something we have to consider. We have a duty to vote in large part based on what the people who voted us in office want."
A petition swirling online against the rezoning garnered more than 1,900 signatures by Wednesday evening. Many of the residents' concerns included increased traffic congestion, negative environmental impacts, fear of setting a precedent for the approval of future commercial rezoning requests, and that a "big-box store" will destroy the town's small-town feel.
It was the first hearing for the ordinance, and if approved it would have gone to a second hearing and vote on June 13. The council voted 4-0, with council member Robert Spalding abstaining. Keith Corporation representatives who attended the meeting declined to comment.
Town Attorney Phillip Noblett said the council should not only consider what residents wanted but also the rights of the property owner.
The council discussed the ordinance for over an hour, with much of the discussion centered around the Planning Commission recommendation and 6-1 vote to deny the rezoning request in April. Vice Mayor Dick Gee and council member Dan Landrum both serve on the Planning Commission.
Landrum said he rejected the proposal in April because it did not meet the requirements of the town's 2008 land use plan.
"The same piece of property came up basically 10 years ago after the land use plan was done and it was denied basically for the same reasons," he said.
The land use plan for Taft Highway at Cauthen Way states that some expansion of the area may be appropriate to provide the town and residents a wider range of services but development should be sensitive to the sloping topography and any streams nearby. It states development should be a "stepped" approach and ideally provide transitional space between higher intensity uses and the surrounding residential neighborhoods. For example, a high-density residential development or office space — not a highway commercial district.
The ordinance had 13 "conditions" attached to it that the developer would have had to meet in building the store if it was approved Wednesday. Some of the conditions included maintaining a conservation easement of 4.59 acres on the parcel, a 40-foot landscaping buffer, a maximum parking allowance of four spaces per 1,000 square feet and "one tree island" every 10 parking spaces to incorporate storm water best management practices.
The developer also would have needed to seek approval to connect to the sanitary sewer system.
Council member Spalding mentioned all the new homes being built on and around Signal Mountain and how it is "inevitable" a larger store would move into the area. He did say he had to consider the majority of the population's stance on the rezoning request, though.
After the meeting, former town council member and vice mayor Susan Robertson said she commends the council for listening to residents.
"This is the first time that we the citizens felt like they listened to us," she said. "This council has had a record of ignoring the citizens."
Contact staff writer Allison Shirk at email@example.com, @Allison_Shirk or 423-757-6651.