18 04 2008

(Note: this is substantially the same story I posted in late March, with some updates for the show.)

I was witness to and participant in another heated community meeting in Scottsboro last month. Without Tony Giantarra and his suited cohorts present, the ladies of the Planning Department had to bear the community’s wrath all by themselves. They stood up nobly under the barrage, but I suspect that afterwards there may have been a few good stiff drinks poured in the privacy of home. The people were not happy, and with good reason.

I would have to admit that, along with the good reasons, there were a few clunkers. For instance, the Planning Department, as a government agency, has to balance the needs of all parties in a dispute, whether they live in Bell’s Bend or, like the Mays brothers, in Mexico. The neighborhood wanted partisanship from the Department, and that was not forthcoming. On the other hand, the planning commission had made some judgement calls, and these were rightly unpopular with the populace.

One call was that there ought to be access between Maytown Center and the rest of Bell’s Bend via Old Hickory Boulevard. This concession, coupled with stories that the Mays family has been offering up to $20,000 an acre for large tracts of land “all over the Bend,” clearly demonstrated to the crowd that the initial proposal was just a beginning, and that what the Mays had in mind was (although nobody used the word) the gentrification of Bell’s Bend, which in their vision would be host to upscale executive housing developments (Hey, who else is going to be able to afford a new country house in the post-meltdown economy?)

One of the planning commission representatives said she visualized Scottsboro turning into “another Leiper’s Fork,” which sounds nice, but I have to point out that what has happened in Leiper’s Fork is that it is no longer affordable to its original inhabitants. As you travel down Tennessee 46 and cross the bridge into town, you are not driving through real country, you are driving through an extremely wealthy neighborhood, where front lawns are measured in acres rather than square feet, and any farming that is being done is strictly for the tax writeoff. Leiper’s Fork has become a Disneyfied faux-small town where the wealthy come to play and the poor get to bus their tables. That’s what I’ve seen in the twenty plus years I’ve been passing through there. I don’t want to see that happen to my neighbors in Scottsboro.

Another judgment call that the Planning Department made was that, while the significance of Bell’s Bend as a rural area had trumped attempts to place subdivisions, a dump, and a large manufacturing facility there, because all these activities could be located elsewhere, the possibility of a major new revenue source for Davidson County bore equal weight with the importance of keeping Bell’s Bend rural, and so they wanted to see if a plan could be drawn with safeguards that would sacrifice part of the Bend and insure the preservation of the rest of it. I’ll get to those safeguards in a minute, but first let’s look at the “major new revenue source” claim, and the claim that Bell’s Bend is the only appropriate place for it.

The Maytown crew posits a $75 million dollar a year increase in Davidson County tax collections from their project, which comes to $150,000 per acre on the 500 acres they propose to turn into a new town. That comes to $4 a square foot just in taxes. No wonder they want to build all those highrises!

But…one very important fact that emerged in the course of this meeting is that there has been no independent study done on the economic benefits of this proposal. The only word we have on the subject so far is the word of the developers. Would you buy a used car strictly on the sayso of the salesman, without not only test driving it, but taking it to a mechanic you trust for a thorough inspection? I didn’t think so, especially not a used car this expensive.

And it is getting more expensive. Tony Giantarra now admits that it will take two bridges to handle all the traffic the project is likely to generate. Somebody at the meeting pointed out that Maytown’s projected daytime population of 44,000 people approaches the daytime population of downtown Nashville, which gets seriously congested every day in spite of having about 18 exit routes, as near as I can count.

And we should not lose track of the fact that the US has an infrastructure maintenance crisis. Over a quarter of this country’s bridges need maintenance, with the bill estimated at $180 billion back in 2005. This is just a small part of a larger need for $1.6 trillion to keep our nation’s water, electrical, sewer, and transportation systems functioning—and that was three years ago, and you know how public works estimates go, and you know that when mechanical devices start to go downhill , they deteriorate faster and faster.

We could have fixed up America, but NO! we spent the money tearing up Iraq, instead. Well, actually, we borrowed the money for that. That’s even worse. But, I digress. The point here is that, in the face of such needs, building two more bridges to aid a private developer seems extravagant, at least to me, but hey, I’m not the developer. And let’s give the Mays boys some credit. At least they moved to Mexico, where they don’t have to worry about hiring illegal immigrants for their domestic help, y’know? And besides, they work even cheaper down there! Damn, I’m still digressing.

Residents took exception to the notion that Bell’s Bend was the only place such a project could locate. They pointed out that there are hundreds of acres in urban Davidson County that are underutilized, already have sewer, water, electric, and road services, and are much more accessible than Bell’s Bend. Not having to build two bridges and run in all those utilities really cuts the cost, doesn’t it? How much of that projected $75 M a year would get eaten up by additional infrastructure costs? Nobody really knows.

Perhaps what makes the Bell’s Bend site unique is that the Mays brothers have bought land there and are used to getting their way. To their credit, the Planning Department representatives said that they regularly point out to the Mays brothers that they are trying to change rural zoning in an area that has been historically highly resistant to it.

In one telling exchange, a Planning Department rep said, in response to a comment about Bell’s Bend being a “potential breadbasket,” that she saw Nashville as being the governmental and business center of middle Tennessee, not its breadbasket. What I think we have here is colliding world views. Some of us are pretty sure that the global commercial web that has been built up over the twentieth century is going to break down over the course of the twenty-first, and that Nashville will need its own breadbasket if it wants to have bread. Other people, all too frequently the ones in power, believe that we are going to be able to continue on more or less as we always have, only with LEED buildings and hybrid cars. I suspect that they are in for a serious shock in the next few years, but I wish I could change their minds first.

And along in here comes the question of maintaining Nashville’s revenue stream, so that we can keep on having schools and garbage pickups and roadway maintenance and streetlights and libraries and police patrols and that sort of thing. In the short run, I am sure there are other ways to “enhance Nashville’s revenue stream” besides sacrificing the county’s last major unspoiled rural area.

In the long run, I don’t think Nashville, or any city, is going to be able to “maintain its revenue stream.” Property values are going down, sales tax collections are going down, incomes are going down–for most of us, anyway. Sooner or later, hard choices are going to have to be made, and no, it’s not going to be pretty. It almost feels like science fiction to inject a paragraph like this in a story about land use in Bell’s Bend, but this is where theory meets practice, folks.

Another major bone of contention between the neighborhood and the Planning Department surfaced when the planners insisted that, due to the dense, compact nature of the proposed development, it could not be called “sprawl.” I’m sorry, ladies, but when you ignore underdeveloped but already urban areas in order to build two new bridges, create a network of roads, sewer, water, and electric lines, and introduce 44,000 people into an area previously inhabited largely by cows, and are presented with conclusive evidence that the developer’s plans don’t stop there, you are sprawling. Any questions?

There was a fourth judgment call that the Planning Department made that was largely overlooked by the meeting. On page 12 of the “Detailed Land Use Policy Descriptions” document that they handed out, one of the specific “triggers” that would allow development of Maytown Center reads “development of the Alternate Development Area (e.g., Maytown Center) should be tied to specific preservation triggers to the north…..Preservation of the ridgelines and area to the north…could be accomplished by purchase of conservation easements, purchase or transfer of development rights or other methods with the end result of limiting intensive development to the north …and along Old Hickory Boulevard and preserving the natural/rural/residential feel of the rest of Scottsboro/Bell’s Bend.”

I appreciate their attempt to build some safeguards into the plan, but those safeguards have already been undermined, both by the Planning Department’s decision to feed Old Hickory into the potential development, and by the Mays’ search for development property elsewhere in the Bend. Furthermore, when, after the meeting, I asked one of the planners whether she knew how many property owners were amenable to such an arrangement, and whether there was money available to buy the rights of those who are not in a position to donate them, her answer to both questions was “no.” This was not reassuring, and she did know that.

There will be another meeting Tuesday, April 29, at 6PM, once again at the Scottsboro Community Center. I think we can be reasonably certain that nothing will have been decided by then. On the other hand, we can be reasonably certain that the economy will keep on deteriorating, making it less likely that front money will be available for the city and state to start the infrastructure extensions that will be necessary before this project can move into the construction phase, and making even more hollow the Mays’ brothers threat to subdivide their property into two acre lots and turn it into a subdivision if the Maytown Center proposal gets shot down by the Planning Department. Six miles down a winding, two-lane, dead end road? Twelve miles from shopping? The end of a long, skinny water line? Four dollar gas? Five dollar gas? That subdivision is dead in the water and they know it.

At a certain level, the Mays brothers are in the same position as Bear Stearns. They have made a big, foolish investment, and they want the government to bail them out. Now, the government bailed out Bear Stearns, but the government does not have enough money to bail out every rich, influential schlemiel in America, no matter what Ben Bernanke says or thinks. A line has got to be drawn, the buck has got to stop, somewhere. Bear Stearns got lucky, far luckier than they deserved. Saying “no” to the greenwashed sprawl of Maytown Center is where the buck should stop around here.

music: Drive-By Truckers, “Uncle Frank



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