An overflow crowd of Signal Mountain residents came to the May town council meeting, almost all in opposition to a proposal by developers The Keith Corporation to build a large supermarket on property they own at 617 Cauthen Way. Rezoning the property from Low Density Residential to Highway Commercial District was on the agenda for a first reading Monday night. After a more than four hour meeting, the council decided that this rezoning warranted more discussion.
During the citizens opportunity to address the council 32 residents spoke, only five were in favor of the project and two of them were related to the developer and one was the architect that designed the proposed building.
The proposed plan would build a Food City supermarket on 3 of the 8.5 acres of land that is owned by the Keith Corp. The 4.59 acres behind the building that would remain wooded would be considered a buffer between the 21 residential properties that touch the total acreage. One of the existing commercial buildings would be razed and replaced with the store; the other building would be renovated and together with the big box store, would become the developer’s idea of a town center concept with "lifestyle components." There are 150 parking spaces planned that incorporates tree islands in the parking lot which will add an acre of impervious paving, increasing storm water runoff. And, there will be an estimated removal of 1100 trees.
Almost every speaker told the council that they moved to Signal Mountain for the small town feel. One said she had never spoken to anybody who moved there for more shopping opportunities. Many cited a land use plan that was originally developed in 2008 and updated in 2010 in which there was nothing indicating a desire to be anything except a small town. Residents fear a big box grocery store would change that. It would increase traffic, noise from delivery trucks and dumpsters and light pollution. There is also a concern that the development has no step down transition area from commercial to residential and there is a fear that it would create an adverse impact causing declining property values of adjacent homes as well as the lifestyles of the owners. This development would duplicate what is already available, said one resident. Pruitt’s Grocery Store is already considered to be the town center, she said, and there already are cafes and a coffee shop.
If rezoning is approved, people believe there will be a domino effect and that it will be difficult to turn down other requests for rezoning to commercial. Another speaker said that a good business will attract customers; a big grocery store is not needed to bring them. "Why does everybody worship growth? We don’t want it," said another. There will soon be three big box grocery stores at the foot of Signal Mountain and another in nearby Red Bank. Many residents fear a negative effect on Pruitt’s which offers residents very personalized services and supports local vendors. Small stores cannot compete pricewise with large chain store prices, said one concerned speaker. "I believe that you should go home with the one who brung you to the dance," she said.
If such a large building is allowed and the business does not meet the projected numbers, both residents and the council are afraid that a large empty shell will remain. This decision is a very big deal, one man told the council. It will permanently change the character of the town—forever—we won’t ever go back."
The few proponents of the project said with people now shopping for groceries off of the mountain, revenue is being lost. Property tax now collected from the 8.5 acres is currently $3,000. If it was developed as has been proposed, it is estimated to generate $37,596 yearly. The town would also benefit from an additional $122,850 in sales tax from the grocery store.
One owner of a franchised business that is off the mountain said he sees a difference in business in a commercial district which has a large anchor store as a tenant. He said in his opinion that a small town feel does not necessarily mean small business. He believes that there are enough people for both Food City and Pruitt’s to survive. He said there has been a prolonged period of growth in the county but he does not feel like it is happening on Signal Mountain. Another advocated for a zoning change said he had moved to the mountain for the school system, but he sees no economic vitality. He said this is a time warp to the 1970’s or 80’s. Because of the great asset of the schools, he said people will continue to come and the community will continue to grow and infrastructure needs to follow.
The Keith Corporation maintains that the land use plan targeted that property for future commercial development, and that "The Shoppes at Signal Mountain" would be in keeping with what residents wanted when the plan was created. The design of the large grocery store would be among the smallest of Food City stores; he said and is designed to look like multiple small stores.
The development would have three access points, and the developer would prefer to have a pedestrian activated traffic light for safely crossing Taft Hwy. He said it would create 128 jobs, many first jobs for kids and last jobs for retirees. Knox Campbell with Keith Corporation said that the company would be saving trees by not using the back 4.59 acres, as he showed a slide for an alternative plan for using the land. The drawing he showed left only one tree on each of 17 lots. One speaker noted that was not how those lots could actually be landscaped, and all of the trees would not need to be cut.
Steve Smith, president and CEO of Food City K Vat, told the council his company is looking at growth opportunities and that is seen on Signal Mountain. He told the council that a three-year lease remains on the store at the foot of the mountain and there are no plans to close it unless competition makes it unprofitable. People are not expected to come up the mountain to shop, but growth is projected in the county outside of the Signal Mountain city limits. He said that the company has done its homework regarding continued growth and profitability. Food City will sign a 20 year lease for the building, he said. If rezoning is not approved for the land owned by Keith Corporation, locations will be considered elsewhere in the county. Trucks and increased traffic would still impact the town, said Commissioner Robert Spalding. Mr. Smith told the council that deliveries could be scheduled in order to reduce the noise they created.
The developers cannot be kept in limbo, said Town Attorney Phil Noblett. A first vote must be held three months after the planning commission makes its recommendation to the town council. The council is the body that will make the final decision. If the request is denied, the project cannot come back for 12 months, he said. During that time, the developer can do what they want with their property. This vote will require a majority of the five member council, so there must be three votes in favor for the zoning request to move forward.
Town Manager Boyd Veal recommended that conditions be added to the ordinance before a first vote. The planning commission recommended six to one for the council to deny the request, therefore the conditions that had been considered were not sent to the council. It was decided that the ordinance will be amended to add conditions that will be put in writing and ready for a first vote that will take place at the agenda meeting on May 25. After the first vote, the council will have additional discussions about the rezoning request.
In other business, approval was given for the purchase of a police interceptor and fuel pump and fuel management software for the public works building. Contracts were awarded for three storm water projects: culvert replacement at 933 Whippoorwill Dr., ditch rehabilitation on Shackleford Ridge Road and drainage improvements on Fern Trail. A donation of surplus police radios to Marion County Emergency Management Agency was approved, and $4,000 will be given to the Signal Mountain Lions Club for events during the Fourth of July. A contract for work on the front part of the MACC building was authorized for $409,470.
An amendment was approved for the 2017-2018 budget to make adjustments for actual expenditures made during the year. The first reading of the fiscal year 2018-2019 budget was also approved. The property tax rate remains the same as the current year, at $1.5665.