Monday, December 22, 2014 · 2:28 p.m.
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A request to rezone this site for an ethanol facility has residents against it and City Council members at odds about granting a special exception permit. Staff photo.

A rezoning request to allow an ethanol transfer station in the Bonny Oaks Industrial Park has brought to a head the Chattanooga City Council’s philosophical differences over the use of special exception permits.  

Englewood Enterprises is asking to rezone about four acres on Enterprise Park Drive from M2 to M1, which would allow the company to relocate its Manufacturer’s Road facilities closer to a railroad line. An engineer associated with the project said the move will increase delivery efficiency and lower costs.

Residents near the park oppose the request mainly because they consider ethanol a hazardous substance that could potentially contaminate the land and water. They oppose the change to M1 zoning because it allows heavy industrial or manufacturing that process materials such as the corn fuel.

"They don’t want it to become another Alton Park," Councilman Russell Gilbert, who represents the area, said. Gilbert referred to the wide-spread industrial contamination and brownfields in the South Chattanooga neighborhood that residents say have caused numerous health-related issues.

Some believe the solution for the Bonny Oaks project is the special exceptions permit, an option that lets council members approve a nonconforming use with very specific restrictions. Those who oppose the special exceptions permit call it spot zoning and that it sets a bad precedent.

"This body has presented itself as being against special exceptions permits," Councilman Andrae McGary said. "People come up here wanting to open an old folks home and we consistently turn them down. It’s not right to do it for a commercial project when we won’t do it for residential."

Exceptions are rare—several months ago, the council recently approved an East Chattaooga woman’s request to open a home for elderly and mentally disabled people but only after she met several specific, demanding requirements outlined by council members including showing she had support of residents who lived blocks away from the site. More recently the council denied a similar request from a man who provided sparse information about his project.

The special exceptions permit is a tool that planners use to protect the integrity of a zone, Councilman Peter Murphy said. Rather than setting a precedent, it prohibits opening a flood gate to similar zoning, he said.

"If we leave this as M2 with a special permit for this ethanol project, than if it stops being used for ethanol it cannot be used for any other non-conforming uses," Murphy said.

John Bridger, executive director of the Regional Planning Agency, where the zoning request will be heard by the agency’s planning commission arm, said the special exceptions permit gives the council tremendous leeway and control.

"Literally it is how you write it,” he said. "If the property changes hands, the new owner would have to reapply for the special exceptions permit, if you write it that way. We can establish what is revocable, if that is the will of the council."

It's used more than officials realize, he said. The planning commission and City Council routinely approve special use permits for PUDs, or planned unit developments, which are multi-family attached housing.

"You see that routinely," he said. "But you just don't think much about because it is routine."

Land use versus personalities
Councilwoman Carol Berz said it is important to remember that the issue is about land use, not the particular business or person who is making the request for the exception.

"This isn’t an economic issue,” Berz said. "It's a land use situation. These are good folks who want to do some of these projects. The question is do we have the ability to justify a special exception in manufacturing."

Proponents said this is the only practical place where Englewood can move its operations. Sited near a railroad, ethanol can be transferred from rail cars to holding tanks at the site. Currently trucks the fuel and drive 18 miles to the holding facility on Manufacturers Road. Ethanol, a clean-burning, high-octane motor fuel produced mostly from corn, is added to gasoline to help reduce America's dependence on foreign fuels.

Opponents fear leaks or spills of the fuel, contaminating ground water and soil. Residents also worry that a zone change will allow similar businesses with similar pollution risks. Alton Park is almost synonymous for long term industrial contamination. The area is home to several Superfund sites no longer suitable for residential development.

There is already one ethanol transfer facility in Chattanooga that uses one of the two rail lines that serve this area, Mike Price, engineer with MAP Consultants, said. The Englewood facility would use the other rail line, CSX, he said.

Going through the steps

Councilman Jack Benson said the council’s discussion is pointless until they learn what Hamilton County commissioners will do. Located in the city, the industrial park is a county-owned entity with a covenant prepared by the county when land was first sold in 1986.

Price said the changes to the covenant are minor, similar to the kind of changes that would be accepted in a residential neighborhood with restrictions governing building and landscaping.

"The county will have to approve the property sale because the owner originally bought it for warehouse use," he said. "They bought it 12 or 13 years ago and they never found something suitable."

The covenant requires the County Commission to approve the sale price, a tool to keep people from buying park land and selling it when prices rose, Price said.

Price said the developer is scheduled to appear before the commission Sept. 7. Meanwhile Murphy, chairman of the city's Legal, Legislative and Public Safety Committee, instructed Bridger to compose a special exception permit that addresses all of the concerns about the ethanol project.

Gilbert said his main concern is residents' safety but he also does not want to see heavy industrial and manufacuturing facilities moving into the area.

"That area is already (sparsely) populated," he said. "We want people to move in, not run them off. I will fight for my people."

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