If all developers wanted to be good citizens while making money, we could probably do away with the planning department and become libertarians. Unfortunately, pigs don’t fly, and hell hasn’t frozen over yet.

This is a story of one developer who came to town with the intent of making money and moving on to the next project. Fortunately for us, he decided somewhere along the way he could make money and be a good neighbor, too.

A conventional rezoning with 16 units per acre

I first became aware of Charles Haskett when he presented his apartment project off Manson Pike to city council last November. Haskett, a principal partner at Bonavic Development of Birmingham, Ala., was proposing to build at least 277 apartment units on the 17.3 acre site next to the Brookwood subdivision.

The development put at risk one of the county’s great treasures, the historic Springfield Mansion, which was built with the help of slave labor between 1805 and 1809. The home, with its impressive double front doors and hand carved woodwork, was the focal point of a 640-acre estate.

The Springfield Mansion will be saved.
The Springfield Mansion will be saved.

Clyde Rountree, of Huddleston-Steele Engineering, who represents Haskett, admitted that originally there was no plan to save the house. The idea was to avoid the delay and cost of hammering out a planned development, seek a conventional zoning of 16 dwelling units an acre, build a conventional apartment complex and move on.

In his presentation, Rountree argued that a planned development was not necessary because the developer would accept the higher design standards of the city’s central gateway design district. It didn’t work.

Attacked from all sides

The proposal fell apart under the combined  weight of: (1) neighborhood attacks, (2) claims Haskett had not dealt honestly with the city, (3) geological constraints on the parcel, (4) demands for preserving the historic mansion (5) fears a planned pool and clubhouse would disrespect a cemetery adjacent to the property and (6) privacy and safety issues for people who live in Brookwood.

On one side were warnings that the site is not safe for building because there is a major cave system, full of water at times, under the property. On the other, were tearful pleas to save the mansion, claiming that it stands on “sacred ground”.

Historical things being torn down to make way for the new

“People are tired of things with history being taken out of this town, tired of the next big thing …  it’s just exhausting,” said Heather McQuiddy, one of the residents.

The council deferred action on Haskett’s request indefinitely.  Mayor Shane McFarland warned him 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.

Visitors in the night

It appeared to me that Haskett was in such a deep hole he couldn’t dig himself out. I shouldn’t have underestimated the man. As he left city hall, I asked him what is next. He said he would be back with a planned development.

Renewal and a fresh start
Renewal and a fresh start

Obviously, Haskett was visited by three spirits some time during the Christmas holidays. If you’ll pardon the poetic license, he came back in January a changed man.

Appearing before the planning commission, he unveiled a planned residential development that amounts to a collaborative design process with city planners. Not only would the mansion be saved it would become the theme of the whole place — the thing you see at the end of the long road into the development.

Repairing the mansion out of his own pocket

He said the home is in good shape and pledged to make necessary repairs, including putting on a new roof and making structural repairs to the front. While it would cost too much to open the house to the public or give it a commercial use, Haskett’s plan is to make it a residence for a property manager or maintenance person on the property. In brief interview, he told me he is ready to spend “tens of thousands of dollars” fixing up the place.

He treated the mansion with respect, putting two acres of landscaped open space around it. An appeal by one resident Thursday night to move some apartment units into this open space clashed with the earlier claim that the mansion stands on “sacred ground.”

Ask and ye shall receive

If residents were concerned about a cemetery near the development’s pool area, Haskett moved the clubhouse so that it formed an L-shaped barrier between the pool and the graveyard. Three story buildings were moved away from the common property line to the parcel’s interior. A landscaped buffer along the common property line will be at least 12 feet wide, and where the trees are thin, Haskett will supplement them with fresh plantings.

When one planning commissioner complained that the clubhouse looked plain and undistinguished, Haskett had it redesigned to reflect the mansion theme.

Road show before the grand opening

Two days later, he unveiled his project to a skeptical and sometimes hostile crowd at a neighborhood meeting.

Neighborhood meetingat Cason Lane Academy. Trying to win over people who don' want apartments as neighbors.
Before the neighborhood meeting began at Cason Lane Academy. Trying to win over people who don’t want apartments as neighbors.

“You guys are great,” said Joe Lozano, one of the residents.”You have all your ducks in order. Everything we are asking for you’ve gone above and beyond. If I met you anywhere else, I’d say you are great guys, but we’re on a professional issue here. The bottom line is we don’t want it (apartments as neighbors). And I’ll tell you why we don’t want it. I don’t blame you guys. You guys are developers, and your aim is to make money. I blame our city planners because this thing was zoned for something else. … We’re becoming an apartment city rather than (a city of) homes.

The neighbors get their fence

Responding to the security fears of the residents, Haskett agreed to run a six-foot privacy fence down the common, landscaped border his project shares with Brookwood.

When the rezoning request came before city council members Thursday, the number of protesting residents from Brookwood had dwindled to two. One, Tammie Cleek, asked that the fence height be raised to 8 feet, as an adult could peer over a six foot fence fairly easily.

Eight is enough

When Councilman Rick La Lance asked if an 8-foot fence would be “doable” there was a pause and then Haskett agreed.  After the meeting, he seemed relieved that his rocky boat ride through the Murfreesboro rapids was over.

Some residents failed to understand what they had won, questioning Haskett’s commitment to save the historic house. The entire planned district design has the force of law, like a zoning district itself. To change it and later tear down the house, Haskett would have to go though a lengthy amendment process, requiring hearings before the planning commission and council. I doubt Haskett is interested in a redo. If such a decision were ever made it would likely come from a homeowners association.

An unsettling long-term concern

The one outstanding issue is the cave. According to testimony at an earlier council meeting, the closest building appears to be about 100 feet from the subterranean passage. Thursday night, Rountree assured the councilman that no developer is going to buy a piece of property “that is a sieve”. He said Haskett’s experts had drilled deeply enough to be certain the foundation of no building will be over the cave.

That may be true for now. If the cave is full of water, and it is at times, the limestone prevalent there is threatened by erosion. Buildings that are not over the cave now may be in 10 or 20 years. Haskett will be a distant memory if there is a sinkhole tragedy 20 years from now.