A North Chattanooga man is helping organize the growing number of neighborhood leaders and residents concerned about local planning decisions.
Chattanoogans for Responsible Development, which is in its infancy but already has more than 300 Facebook group members, will aim to give citizens a louder voice in the development currently reshaping the city by offering solutions rather than just criticism, said Jim Johnson, founder of the group.
The organization's membership rules and legal status is still being determined, but an organizing committee met recently to discuss next steps.
"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness," Johnson said. "I want to work with the appropriate agencies and even developers in the city to identify best practices nationwide and leverage resources to the fullest extent that we can to make sure Chattanooga follows best practices moving forward."
The group started as a band of neighbors opposed to the GreenTech development proposed for the North Shore, said Johnson, who lives on Berkley Circle, but it grew as he and his friends realized they weren't the only homeowners trading lunch breaks for planning commission meetings.
At the most recent meeting of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission — during which a proposed, and hotly debated, Southside Publix was the topic du jour — there was standing room only by the time Ethan Collier, the young, local builder who heads the commission, opened the meeting with stern instructions for the crowd. Hundreds had signed a petition against the supermarket's plans, while hundred more had signed a petition in favor.
"We can't hear from all of you," Collier said. "If you do wish to speak, you to need to get up and stand against this wall."
Jim Johnson, speaking in opposition to the plan, was second to the microphone.
He lives on the North Shore, he explained, but he wanted Southside residents pushing back on Publix's proposed design to know that when North Shore residents pushed back on the design of the Publix, now on South Market Street, they got concessions.
"I like Publix," he told the crowd, and Publix had built stores in places like Birmingham, Mobile and Tallahassee that would be a good fit for a walkable, urban area, he added. There was a way for everyone to be happy.
Southside residents developed a plan for the area with the Regional Planning Agency, Johnson said, and that plan called for future development to be urban, mixed-use (a combination of retail and residential space) and walkable. Instead, the developer was proposing a traditional suburban grocery story, fronted by a well-landscaped parking lot.
Many citizens are frustrated because developers are coming into their neighborhoods with big plans that don't consider the existing ecosystem, said Beth Van Deusen, a North Chattanooga resident and member of Chattanoogans for Responsible Development.
"What I've witnessed too many times at planning commission is the request to rezone in order to build two, three, even four times the number of houses allowed, altering the character of an already-established area," Van Deusen said. "The rules exist to maintain a cohesive and thoughtful neighborhood. I know that developers want to maximize profits, but that cost should not be the decrease in quality of life for the people who already live there.
Developers should not expect special dispensation, she said, even if they can't make the numbers "work" because they have to have a certain number of units to make money.
Laurie Mitchell also joined Johnson's group because of what she's seen in her neighborhood. Acres of trees have been stripped clear; houses have been built on slopes that cause stormwater runoff issues; and some homes have been built so close together you can "hand your neighbor a cup of coffee through your window," she said.
"This group is allowing us to speak as one for all neighborhood concerns about irresponsible development, not just North Chattanooga," Mitchell said. "When we speak as one, we get our voices heard and our concerns addressed."
For instance, she said the group fought to have the rezoning request for Knickerbocker and Notting Hill denied, and the planning commission and the Chattanooga City Council denied the rezoning request.
"What we want now is for people to think more of this as residents of Chattanooga and not residents of a specific neighborhood," Johnson said. "What's bad for one neighborhood is bad for all neighborhoods."
John Bridger, head of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, said he wants citizen input in planning.
"I believe that good policy results from the honest exchange of viewpoints and ideas about how we make our city a great place to live, work and play," Bridger said, in a statement. "Jim Johnson's group provides one of those perspectives that ensures balance as we consider policies and projects that impact the economic vitality and livability of our communities."
Johnson said he believes Bridger. In fact, the Regional Planning Agency staff recommended against the South Broad Publix plan because it wasn't consistent with the community's plan and zoning for the area.
In the future, Johnson hopes Chattanoogans for Responsible Development will be constructive and help community members learn about and advocate for best practices in planning. The group also wants to advocate for the Regional Planning Agency and ensure that it has the support it needs.
"They really need for the community to become louder," said Johnson. "If the only people making noise with the politicians and decisions makers are the developers than those are the voices that are going to be heard."
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