During Tuesday’s meeting, City Council passed a rezoning resolution that defies the typical process and could open council to a potential lawsuit.
The matter centers around a 1001 Reads Lake Road property that has been through several rezoning processes since 1980. The most recent was in 2002.
The resolution would allow City Council to impose conditions on the already zoned property to correct a mistake that officials believe the city made in 2002.
Government officials drafting a resolution to change already established zoning is an atypical process.
The resolution passed with a 7-0 vote. Both District 4 City Councilman Darrin Ledford and District 6 City Councilwoman Carol Berz abstained from voting.
Ledford said he worries that the way the council handled the issue could mean legal trouble.
In 2002, the Reads Lake Road zoning was converted from a strictly-defined property meant for a specific use to a more broadly-defined commercial zone as part of a citywide decision that affected 600 other properties.
City officials said they think that residents nearby the Reads Lake Road property were unaware of the change because of the city’s failure to properly notify all of the neighborhoods affected by the 2002 citywide zoning update.
The Reads Lake Road-area residents recently became aware of the odd property zoning when James Pratt, a local business owner, decided to buy the property and was looking at rezoning it again to build apartments.
In early spring, Pratt filed a rezoning request with Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission but later withdrew it following backlash at a neighborhood meeting about the property change.
Residents said they were unhappy with the original zoning done in 2002, but also do not want high-density apartments in the area either.
“We feel that the community is threatened with a high-density rental zone in an R-1 neighborhood that would unquestionably alter the character of the entire neighborhood,” resident Steve Hunt said during Tuesday’s council meeting. “The high-density creates a host of other problems, as I’m sure you’re aware…”
Even though Pratt withdrew his request, the case ended up at City Council after District 1 Councilman Chip Henderson filed a resolution directing the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency to draft conditions that limit the property to functioning as a C-1 zone instead of the C-2 zoning assigned to it in 2002.
These conditions would then be applied through a rezoning application filed by the city attorney on behalf of City Council.
The debate about the resolution stems from the nature in which the zoning conditions would be applied.
Because the owner of the property would not be the applicant of the rezoning request, some officials are worried that the application would be a Fifth Amendment violation as stated under a Tennessee Supreme Court Case, Phillips v. Montgomery County.
Another statute says that conditions on a property can only be placed at the time of the rezoning.
“Imposing a condition on a rezoning that occurred 17 years ago is not only very highly irregular but actually, it’s highly illegal,” Sam Elliott, an attorney speaking on behalf of Pratt, said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Ledford, who is also the chairperson of the Planning and Zoning Committee, said he considered these facts when making his decision to abstain from voting. Before the vote, Ledford also asked for the council and involved parties to continue working together on the issue instead of making a vote that night.
“My cry was for them to continue conversation,” Ledford said. “[The property owner and residents] were cordial. They were very nice to each other and I think there’s a lot of merit and a lot of good faith in that. We could have avoided [this]. We’re putting the taxpayers [on the line]. [A lawsuit] is coming.”
Ledford said he also chose to abstain because he thinks city officials didn’t discuss the issue enough.
“It was not heard in [Planning and Zoning] Committee, so the Council … did not get a chance to openly discuss the merits of this case,” Ledford said.
Henderson said he still moved forward with his decision because it was the best thing to do in the situation.
“While this could be seen as government overreach, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really government protecting these people,” Henderson said during Tuesday’s meeting.
Pratt said he had no comment on City Council’s decision to move forward with the resolution.
Alina Hunter-Grah is a contributing writer. She currently attends UTC, where she was previously the news editor of the student newspaper, The University Echo. Alina also worked at CNN during the summer of 2017 and is the former Chattanooga correspondent for 2nd & Church, a literary magazine based out of Nashville. You can reach Alina at [email protected] or on Twitter @alinahuntergrah.