“How many divisions does the Pope have?” — Joseph Stalin

For one developer at Thursday night’s council meeting it was the best of times. For a second it was the worst of times. The second man was clearly looking for a way to get his apartment project out of an embankment and back on track.

Both projects required the city to draw up a plan to serve them in order to grant the property owners’ requests for annexation. Both applicants were asking for rezoning from the default 15,000 square foot single family lots that annexation parcels get. Both proposals faced opposition initially from residents living nearby.

Different approaches to neighbors

That is where the similarities end. The first project, which involves about 58 acres along Compton road, will be a combination of single family lots of various sizes and condos. The second applicant was seeking a multi-family rezoning allowing 16 living  units per acre on 17.3 acres north off Manson Pike. The first applicant was proposing a planned district. In this approach  both the developer and city planners put aside the traditional zoning requirements and work together to try to design something special.

The second applicant was hoping to save time and money by skipping the planned development process. He argued that by accepting the city’s higher standards for gateway projects he was essentially doing the same thing as the first developer. It didn’t work.

Attacked from all sides

Charles Haskett, a principal partner at Bonavic Development of Birmingham, Ala., was proposing to build at least 277 apartment units on the 17 acres. But his proposal fell apart under the combined  weight of: (1) neighborhood attacks, (2) claims he had not dealt openly and honestly with the city, (3) geological constraints on the parcel, (4) demands for preserving a historic mansion on the site, (5) fears for the fate of a cemetery on the property and (6) privacy issues for people who would live near the apartments.

The issue became this: The developer was not anxious to start spending money to restore a historical mansion and deal with environmental constraints on the property until he was sure he had the zoning he wants. His critics wanted solid commitments from him on saving the house and studying the site’s geological problems before giving him the zoning.

A big cave and two major sinkholes

Chuck Sutherland, a graduate student at Tennessee Technological University, led off the assault. He said he is worried about the large Military Spring cave that lies beneath the property, as it has caused two big sinkholes on the west and  northern sides of the parcel.

“My concern is how you are developing on this property, especially on the north side,” he said. “What I’d like to see done is a proper geo-technical study so that the cave passage can be accurately determined.”

Sutherland presented the councilmen with a line plot of the suspected location of the cave, done by a diver carrying a line under water through the cavern. In a conversation after the meeting, he estimated that the cave could be as long at 1200 feet.  A 1988 environmental impact report prepared for a possible super collider project here put the cave length at about 100 feet.

Emotions were running high

A home worth saving. But how?
A home worth saving. But how?

That was the scientific part of the meeting. Things got emotional when talk turned to the historic Springfield or Washington House, which stands at the end of a long driveway off Manson Pike. As a history major, I get excited about preserving sites like this one, and hope somehow a way can be found to save this gem.

On the other hand, I am a lot like the Pope, at least in one way. When someone suggested what the Pope was recommending on an issue during World War II, Stalin turned quietly and asked: “How many divisions does the Pope have in the field?” It’s easy to make recommendations when you aren’t putting up any of the money.

The best chance to save the house?

Many people want to save the house. But, as Councilman Ron Washington said, government isn’t going to do it. The property owner didn’t donate the parcel to the city for preservation. The only hope is the developer, and it may be asking a lot to demand that he sink a major sum into the house from his profit on the project.

Still, it would be tragic if another piece of Murfreesboro’s history goes under. Washington warned that another home builder or commercial developer might not be as sympathetic to the house as this one is. But that wasn’t what the residents wanted to hear.

Only promises, no solid commitment on the house

“I haven’t heard a thing yet that says the house has a chance of standing,” complained Leslie Smith of neighboring Hallmark Drive.

Heather McQuiddy, who lives on Biltmore Circle, said a spring in the cave produces 210 million gallons of water a day in the high water season. But her real concern was the area’s history.

“The history of this house is unbelievable,” She added. “You can see it. You can see George Washington’s descendants — Davey Crockett (two daughters of the man who built the house married into the Crockett family). “Even the cemetery (nearby) is on the Historical Register.

McQuiddy said it appears the applicant has moved the swimming area next to the cemetery, which does not blend well with the grief of people visiting their loved ones there.

“The history’s in the house. I understand that apartments have to be done. People want to live here, and I get all that,” she said. “But there’s still history and if we knock this house down or allow it to be destroyed, there’s not going to be any history left for our children. What do we do? We show them something and say: ‘Here is the grass that this house was on?”

People are tired of things being torn down

She said “people are tired of things with history being taken out of this town, tired of the next big thing …  it’s just exhausting..”

Tammy Cleek, who also lives on Hallmark Drive, was choking back tears as she spoke about the house and twice had to stop to compose herself.

“I’m asking you to see”

“It’s really not going to matter what’s put here, if it all goes under” she said. “Murfreesboro is growing, and that’s great. This is a tiny piece of property. … I know they want to sell their property, and I know they have the right to do that. (But) this is ridiculous what we’re trying to put on this property. (Even) if I lived across town I would say ‘Don’t do this.’ … This is almost like sacred ground. … There’s another field waiting that doesn’t have this history, that doesn’t have this karst system…. I once was lost, and now I’m found. I was blind, but now I see. I’m asking you to see.”

A claim the old shell game is going on

Leslie Smith, who lives on Hallmark Drive, said there was a good turnout at the neighborhood meeting. He complained that the plan being presented at this meeting is nothing like the plan that was shown at the neighborhood meeting.

“The information I heard at that (neighborhood meeting), and the planning (commission) meeting and now — none of it matches,” he said. ” We’re going to change this zoning, which I’m against it, to RM16 (multifamily) with no idea what’s going on. … And it’s scary for me as a homeowner.”

He said the developer implied that homeowners left the neighborhood meeting with a good feeling, but in his view the opposite was true. His chief concerns are  noise, security, traffic and privacy. He charged that this plan offers less privacy than the first one because some appartments have been moved closer to the property line.

The council members aren’t paying attention

Haskett walked the council members through his plan. His aim was to show the care he is taking to make the house a central part of the design, the quality of the construction and the amenities planned. He also sought to demonstrate his concern  for the residents next door by stressing that he is retaining a strip of huge trees along the property line. But it was clear that he was losing his audience. Several councilmen were looking down at their computers, and one left for a few minutes, apparently for the bathroom. Soon everyone was piling on.

Margaret Ann Green, a principal planner on the staff, said the plan presented to the council has not been before the planning commission or even reviewed by the planning staff. She added that she would advise the developer to do a thorough investigation of the cost involved before signing deed restrictions that would require him to save the house. If used as an amenity in the complex, the mansion would have to meet commercial building standards.

“I just don’t have it.”

Haskett said the plan was changed in an effort to meet the concerns expressed by the neighbors, contending that there was no desire to deceive anyone. He added that he could not give an ironclad promise to save the house because the cost might run into millions of dollars, and “I just don’t have it.”

Mayor Shane McFarland said it is customary on properties with historical sites to do a planned development rather than follow traditional development.  Haskett replied that he followed the conventional route because he hoped to save time and money. He added that some properties were moved closer to the property line because this  became necessary once he decided to preserve the house and the land around it.

Smotherman sees lack of honesty

Councilman Eddie Smotherman accused the devloper of deception, saying he never even mentioned the house at the planning commission stage. He added that at least the three-story  buildings near the property line appear to invade the neighbors’ privacy.

The council members approved a plan to serve the site with city services as well as the property owner’s request to annex it. But, by deferring action on the zoning request, the council put both the services plan and annexation in limbo, as both are tied to the zoning request.

Mayor McFarland said the message was clear that this zoning request is not likely to pass in the future.

“If this doesn’t scream for a PRD (planned residential development) I don’t know what project would,” McFarland said.

By contrast, a similar plan to annex about 59 acres along Compton Road and develop it as a planned district went through without a hitch. Initially, the plan had faced opposition from residents of The Reserve subdivision next door. They wanted a development of 12,000 square foot lots, similar to much of the rest of the area. Instead, the developer was proposing a mix of single family lots and condos.

But this developer met with the homeowners. He cut his density to 3.08 units per acre and put his 12,000 square foot lots next to The Reserve.

In contrast to earlier planning commission hearings on this project, no one showed up to complain at the council hearing. Either residents of The Reserve are now satisfied or exhausted.

An unpleasant surprise

David Ives, the assistant city attorney, spoke to the dilemma of the second developer. He said that basically if the developer wants to go the planned district route he is starting from scratch. And a planned development takes not only more time but more money.

“They have now a substantially more expensive project before they even turn a space of dirt than they had anticipated,” he said.

I asked Haskett after the meeting what his plans were, and he said he would be proceeding.

Maybe the last and best hope

It is clear that the planned district process offers the best, and perhaps the last, hope of saving the historic home. Haskett needs a deal. The city has bait.

"I, too, am not as dumb as I sound right now."
“I, too, am not as dumb as I sound right now.”

At the risk of exceeding the three minutes of speaking time the council allots citizens at its meetings, I would like to make a small suggestion. Everyone agrees it would be more expensive to make the house an amenity, like a meeting place, than just to keep it as a residence. Maybe it could be preserved as a residence somehow until the community could raise money to restore it to a higher level.

It sounds odd, but an old house from Revolutionary times in Lancaster, Pa., was restored by the community in the 1970s with the aid of grants when I worked there. The trick is to find a compromise in which everyone wins.

 

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