As new residents push into Nashville, neighborhoods push back

Not in my increasingly crowded backyard

Friday, July 24, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 30
By Linda Bryant

It’s no secret that Nashville’s a city on the rise, and a close look at numbers suggests the rapid population growth is not just strong, it’s stratospheric. Undoubtedly, the city’s current boomtown status puts Nashville in the international spotlight and brings jobs and prosperity to more residents.

But it also brings growing pains in Davidson County neighborhoods as diverse as Whites Creek, Sylvan Park and Green Hills.

The complex issues involve maintaining neighborhood character in rural Whites Creek, ‘scale and use of space’ in blossoming Sylvan Park, and a technicality that grandfathers in a new duplex for a demolished one, putting aside 10 years of regulations in overcrowded Green Hills.

New residential and commercial construction is creating pressure and disagreement in many Davidson County neighborhoods. Some residents feel overrun, threatened or even just plain ignored by the commercial, bureaucratic and political engines that are at the heart of Nashville’s dizzying growth.

Another problem for residents in all three areas, and no doubt in other Davidson County communities, is that outgoing, term-limited council members have not been much help to the neighborhood associations in recent months, leaving many residents waiting for a new representative to get elected and then get up to speed on the problems.

Meanwhile developers are scooping up properties all over the county, often designing high-density projects that stretch as much square footage as possible into a development.

Consider these statistics: Metro government approved a record $2,437,788,885 of building permits for the 2014-15 fiscal year, 30 percent higher than the previous year, which also set a record. Permits for $47 million in construction work were granted every week.

Nashville/Davidson County also has the fastest-growing new home sales in the nation, according to CoreLogic, a national housing research firm. And, according to CNN, an estimated 85 people day – or 31,153 new residents – moved to Nashville in 2014.

“With so much development in Nashville right now, it increases the likelihood there will be problems, mistakes and related issues popping up that are related to that growth,” says Jason Holleman, who represents Sylvan Park as the District 24 Metro Council member. He is term-limited and running for one of five an at-large seats.

“I think the new mayor is going to need to decide just how to handle these issues with added diligence,” he adds.

Residents fight to be heard

NashvilleNext, a 900-page master plan meant to guide the city’s growth, policy and spending through 2040, was adopted by the Metropolitan Planning Commission on June 23. The massive effort, which took three years and 420 meetings to complete, was lauded as a major accomplishment for the city by many participants and city officials.

Neighbors Patrick Slay and Holly Quick discuss their concerns with new construction at 1120 Woodvale Drive in the College Park area of Green Hills. A loophole in Metro Codes has apparently allowed two HPR (horizontal property regime) houses to be built where a duplex previously stood.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

But an ongoing zoning controversy kept a portion of the Whites Creek area of Nashville temporarily out of the plan until a decision can be made about how some of the land in the district will be zoned in the future.

A group of Whites Creek residents are in disagreement with their councilman, District 3’s Walter Hunt, over how the rural area should be developed. Basically, Hunt favors suburban-style density, and many property owners want zoning in place that will protect the rural character of the area.

There are about 3,500 residents in the Whites Creek area, the only Nationally Registered Rural Historic District in Davidson County. But that designation does not address zoning.

Some residents fear an onslaught of subdivisions and duplexes and are taking actions to try to prevent it. The pro-rural residents want to encourage agricultural-based businesses and homes and developments that have much more green space than urban neighborhoods.

In 2014, about 300 residents created a new community plan that replaced an outdated 11-year-old document. They voted overwhelmingly to remain rural (98 percent) and defined “rural” as agriculture, scenic, natural and countryside (90 percent), with only a few people wanting rural estates (10 percent).

“We used to joke that Whites Creek was the best-kept secret in Nashville,” says resident Laura Bigbee-Fott. “We never dreamed it was under threat of development. Now my biggest fear is the Whites Creek will look like Antioch.”

Bigbee-Fott moved to Whites Creek from Bellevue 10 years ago, wanting to distance herself from suburbia and start a quiet, rural lifestyle. She helped her husband grow an animation business,, which operates from the property, and began imagining an agricultural business on the small farm.

Three years ago Bigbee-Fott fulfilled her goals and launched Whites Creek Flower Farm on their 3.5 acres at 6921 Old Hickory Blvd.

“Why can’t Whites Creek be the place where folks coming to Nashville, and even Nashvillians themselves, come to get away from it all? See what the countryside is like without having to drive for hours?” Bigbee-Fott explains.

“It’s right here. It’s within the city limits. We want to see creative, intelligent ventures that capture the imagination and the local spirit. Why can’t we be the Leiper’s Fork of Davidson County?”

11 properties in limbo

The vast majority of Whites Creek was designated as low-density T2 (a rural designation) in the NashvilleNext plan, but a decision on 11 remaining properties owned by four landowners was deferred until the Aug. 6 meeting. Those landowners, who are represented by local land use attorney Tom White, want suburban zoning on their land.

Linda Jarrett, one of the four property owners, lives on a historic family farm in the area.

“I’m not against rural, and I certainly don’t want to trash Whites Creek,” Jarrett says. “We have a beautiful area with rolling hills and hollers, barns, silos, cows and pastures. I don’t think we need apartment complexes and duplexes out here.

“But I also think we need to face the fact that Whites Creek is changing. It can’t stay the same forever.

“As long as people pay their taxes and are taking care of their property, they should have fairly broad rights in deciding what to do with that property,” Jarrett adds. “I don’t like it when others put their viewpoints on you so strongly. Where do their rights stop and mine start?”

Former Metro Planning Director Rick Bernhardt, who retired immediately following the passage of NashvilleNext, proposed a compromise solution of S-P (special plan) zoning for the 11 remaining properties at the June 23 NashvilleNext meeting. Councilman Hunt, who was uncomfortable with the compromise, asked for a deferment until the Aug. 6 meeting.

Bernhardt’s solution would give concessions to both parties and allow projects to be designed on a more customized, site-by-site basis.

In the meantime, many pro-rural residents aren’t sure they agree with the S-P zoning as a compromise solution.

“We don’t feel we need the special policy on these 11 properties,” says resident Alicia Batson. “This is undue special treatment. What we need instead is for the Planning Commission to create official “rural development regulations.” Metro has urban and suburban regulations but none created for rural areas.

“We also need an official definition of ‘conservation developments,’ which are not currently defined in the code but are mentioned as preferred options for T2 rural areas,” Batson adds. “The planning department has been asking the planning commission to develop these for a while now, but they have not.”

Angela Williams, who lives on a 170-acre farm in Whites Creek that has been in her family for more than 230 years, say many residents have grown frustrated with Hunt through the process.

“It just doesn’t feel like he’s been listening to the concerns of an important faction of his constituents,” Williams says. “We’re hoping our new council representative will be more willing to work with us.”

Councilman Hunt, who is term-limited, also is running for a Metro Council at-large seat. He did not respond to the Ledger’s attempts to contact him.

Metro Planning spokesperson Craig Owensby says what’s going on in Whites Creek is emblematic of Nashville’s growth.

“Overall, this is another example of the challenge posed by growth in general,” he says. “We’re unique, or nearly so, in that not many other cities have as much rural land and green space as we do in Davidson County.

Sylvan Park codes and zoning flap

Holleman represents Sylvan Park, a West Nashville neighborhood in the midst of a zoning controversy about retail development under construction.

Metro Codes recently issued a “stop order” to the developers of the project at the corner of 46th and Utah avenues after the Sylvan Park Neighborhood Association filed a complaint saying the property was overbuilt by 1,000 square feet.

The property was rezoned in 2013 to make way for the development, but only after heated input from the community about just how much space would be allowed. The neighborhood association approved of the plan and trusted the developer to comply, Holleman says.

Although the developers, Priam Ventures, have insisted they are in compliance – and have submitted documentation they say proves it – the Metro Zoning Administrator ruled against them, putting the project in limbo for now.

Why are residents so upset over 1,000 square feet?

Holleman says neighbors wanted a limited-sized development because the property, the site of a former neighborhood market, is in a residential neighborhood where parking and traffic are major concerns.

He says the neighborhood made the good-faith effort to work with the developers on the front end and understood they weren’t going to max out the square footage.

A new cluster of businesses in Sylvan Park has run afoul of neighbors and Metro Codes.

-- Lyle Graves | Ledger

Holliman says most of neighborhood actually likes the idea of the two retail projects – an upscale restaurant, Truss, and and a unisex salon, Scout’s Barbershop, that’s expanding from his East Nashville location.

“The issue is all about scale and use of space,” he says

At this point Holleman sees four choices for the developers: rebuilding to meet the current zoning code, amending the zoning through Metro Council to fit the current footprint of the project, appealing the decision through the Board of Zoning Appeals or walling off part of the building so that the square footage in use for retail doesn’t exceed the limit.

Priam Ventures did not return phone calls from the Ledger, but Holleman believes it’s unlikely it will make a decision on what direction to take until after the new District 24 seat is filled after the Aug. 6 election.

“The good news is that the Nashville market is doing well,” Holleman says. “At the same time, it’s the responsibility of elected officials and planning and zoning staff to make sure zoning regulations are followed. We need to make sure we have the resources and the staffing to make sure we’re on top of these situations.”

Seeing red in Green Hills

A group of Green Hills residents living on Woodale Drive in the College Park area say two homes being constructed on their street are out of compliance with downzoning they fought for 10 years ago.

Two single-family homes are being built at 1120 Woodvale where a duplex was recently demolished. When the area was downzoned to RS-10 in 2005, it was to guard against dense development in an area dominated by single-family homes.

Now they feel it’s happening despite their best efforts.

The neighborhood’s RS-10 zoning allows for one-single family for 10,000 square feet of land. The current project under construction has two homes on a 9,000-square-foot lot.

“The existing 1,900-square-foot duplex was demolished to create what we see as two single family houses totaling 5,800 square feet,” says Patrick Slay, who lives across the street from the development. “What we fought to stop 10 years ago did not work. Someone is not paying attention or someone changed the rules without our knowledge.”

After agreeing to compromise with developers, the Sylvan Park Neighborhood Association has filed a complaint stating the property at 46th and Utah is 1,000 over the agreed-to limit.

-- Lyle Graves | The Ledger

Slay says he reached out to outgoing District 25 Metro Councilman Sean McGuire multiple times, starting in March, but he’s never heard back. He eventually communicated with Metro Codes Administrator Bill Herbert and Zoning Examiner Clint Harper.

He says he was told the current construction is allowable, despite the zoning, because of a technicality. From a codes perspective, the two single-family homes are considered a duplex, and apparently, a duplex can be replaced with another duplex if rebuilt within two years.

“They are allowed to be replaced,” Harper wrote in an e-mail. “The reason there are two stand-alone units is because they are what is known as an HPR (horizontal property regime) and these are considered as duplexes. There is a common area between the units and separate owners for each dwelling unit. It does appear to be two separate houses for that reason, but is still considered a duplex by zoning standards.”

Holly Quick, another Woodvale Drive resident, says no one in the neighborhood was aware that duplexes could be “grandfathered” or that two single-family homes could be considered a duplex if they weren’t connected in some manner.

“It probably seems like a small issue on one street in Nashville, but I think this is important for all of Nashville,” Quick says. “I think we’re in a building frenzy that’s causing important details to be overlooked. In some cases, I think people might just be looking the other way.”

Slay says he is not convinced the current construction is compliant. He cites a passage from the code that states new construction on the land should not “further investment or increase the existing degree of land use or structural nonconformance.”

“The way it looks to me is the development clearly is too large,” Slay says. “It will increase the value of the property and homes from $340,000 to almost $1 million. The way I read the code, it’s still out of compliance.”

Quick and Slay don’t think they’ll be able to stop construction, which is nearing completion, and they say they are unlikely to file a formal complaint about 1120 Woodvale Drive.

“We just want to keep it from becoming a pattern, and we want to make sure we understand all the implications of the zoning,” Quick says. “There are three other duplexes on Woodvale zoned RS-10.”

Incoming District 25 councilman Russ Pulley, running unopposed in the Aug. 6 election, says he’s ready to hear more about the issue from Woodvale residents.

“I’m aware of how much building is going on, and of all the pressures attached to it,” Pulley says.

“I support neighborhoods and smart development. The goal is always to get both sides talking and listening to each other.”

McGuire, the outgoing Metro Councilman, did not return phone calls.