The corner of Old Hickory Boulevard and Hillsboro Road is one of the most dangerous intersections in Nashville. Both roads are two-lane, and both wind up and down hills, snaking along nasty curves. During the morning rush hour, traffic headed east on Old Hickory toward I-65 can be backed up for miles; in the afternoon, traffic is backed up in the other direction. For commuters headed north during the morning rush hour, Hillsboro Road is a predictable nuisance; headed south in the afternoon, they fume and proceed warily onward. If there’s a wreck on either road at almost any time of day, gridlock is inevitable.
While the rush-hour congestion on Hillsboro Road has long been a headache for motorists, some feel that Old Hickory Boulevard may prove even more problematic. The only part of Old Hickory that is not four-lane is the stretch between Granny White Pike and Highway 100, the section that passes through some of the city’s priciest neighborhoods and the Warner Parks. A few years ago, in an effort to avoid widening the road through the parks, Metro came up with a plan to reroute Old Hickory south into Williamson County between Hillsboro and Highway 100. So far, however, that idea hasn’t picked up many supporters.
Meanwhile, the Hillsboro-Old Hickory intersection retains its notoriety. It is not just a place where two well-traveled thoroughfares cross. It is also a place where two counties (Davidson and Williamson) and two communities (Forest Hills and Brentwood) run into each other. Of late, it has been the point at which two different mind-sets, two different belief systems, and even two different cultures, have collided.
The northeast corner of the Hillsboro-Old Hickory intersection is part of the City of Forest Hills. It is on that corner that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saintsalso known as the Mormonswants to build a temple. The request hardly seems unusual. Old Hickory already seems to be lined with churches. There’s a Baptist Church on the southwest corner of Hillsboro and Old Hickory, and a synagogue is going up on the southeast corner. A Church of Christ sits right next to the synagogue site. On Old Hickory, between Chickering Road and Granny White Pike (little more than a mile), there are already five churches. However, only one of those churches is on the north side of Old Hickory. It is the only one of the churches within the Forest Hills city limits. And that, says the Forest Hills Planning Commission, is how things are going to stay.
The appearance of evil
Many Forest Hills residents don’t want the Latter Day Saints’ templefor a variety of reasons. There is talk about even worse traffic problems, for example. But they know that nixing the Mormon temple could lead to a public relations disaster. Forest Hills is predominately white and predominately Protestant. When the planning commission last year turned down a change of zoning that would have allowed construction of the temple, they had to know that they might be setting themselves up for controversy. Already, the Mormons have gone to court to challenge the decision. Already, there has been talk of religious bigotry.
“I just don’t think the charge of religious bigotry holds any water,” says Tom White, the attorney defending the city. “Forest Hills is a small community [9 square miles, 4,200 residents], but it is surprisingly diverse. And all [the bigotry charge] does is lend emotion to an issue that is purely legal.”
Allen Erb, spokesman for the Mormons, is somewhat more skeptical. “I have appreciated that there has been no overt religious bigotry,” he says. “Whether there has been covert bigotry, I’m not prepared to say. Those who have taken the opposite stand will have to answer that. There is always the potential for religious bigotry with a lack of understanding.”
Tom White knows a thing or two about forcing new development in a community that doesn’t want it. He successfully represented Hoover Rock Co. in its bid to locate a quarry near Brentwood, and he represented Father Ryan High School when the site plan for the new school was denied by the city of Oak Hill. Upon the basis of those victories, the Mormons attempted to hire White to represent them in their challenge to the Forest Hills commission. In a coup of sorts, Forest Hills landed him first.
“The three cases are not similar at all,” White says. “In the case of the quarry and Father Ryan, the uses we wanted were already permitted in existing zoning; in Forest Hills’ case, it would require a zoning change that the community didn’t want to make.”
The Old Hickory-Hillsboro corner has been a hot spot for years. The City of Forest Hills has separate zoning regulations for “residential” property and “religious” property. The Mormons’ 16 acres, purchased from the Ed Kelly family, is zoned residential.
This is not the first time the Kelly family’s name has come up in a zoning dispute. The family owns property on both sides of Old Hickory. In the late 1980s, when they tried to develop part of their property (south of Old Hickory, but still in Davidson Countyand not in Forest Hills) as a commercial strip, outraged neighbors staged a protest that packed the local Church of Christ. For Metro Council member Charlie Fentress, who represents the area, the evening was a nightmare of harsh accusations and recriminations. At one point, Fentress’ 90-year-old, wheelchair-bound aunt came rolling down the aisle of the church to join the opposition. The commercial strip was never built.
Likewise, Forest Hills has been involved in its own share of zoning disputes. Developer Reese Smith Jr. twice took the municipality to court when it turned down his plans to raze the old Granny White Market and build a newer, larger store. Smith eventually won the right to build a new market, but he didn’t get to add the extra gas pumps he wanted. Forest Hills residents also mobilized two years ago in an effortalbeit an unsuccessful oneto stop BellSouth from erecting a cellular tower, first near Radnor Lake, then on the hill that is the site of the WDCN-Channel 8 tower. Then-City Commissioner Anne Roos voted to allow construction of the tower. “They were legally within their rights,” Roos says. “We simply could not stop them.” Nevertheless, voters became so incensed that Roos was defeated for re-election in 1994.
At present, the Forest Hills City Commission consists of Mayor Charlie Evers and City Commissioners Johnny Lovell and Dick Wert. When it comes to the issue of the Mormon temple, the commission is split. Evers and Lovell are opposed, while Wert voted to overrule the planning commission and allow the zoning change. None of the three would comment for this article.
At public hearings on the issue, residents have been sensitive to the bigotry charge. Proponents for the zoning change have been just as outspoken as the opponents have been. Still, the anti-temple forces do seem to have difficulty enunciating just why they’re opposed to the zoning change.
“I was on the Commission when [the Mormons] first approached the city,” Roos says. “They bought one piece of property further east on Old Hickory and were turned down; so they bought the corner property. There was concern that the temple would be too brightly lit, but they agreed to meet the city’s restrictions. After they went to the expense of redoing their plan and answering the criticism, turning them down again seemed to me to be very poor judgment.” Roos adds, however, that “any other church on that corner would have had problems getting approval too.”
The Mormon Church’s history is filled with incidents of oppression. Just recently, a local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes refused to honor a Mormon athlete. Still, it’s easy to bring up accusations of bigotry, while it’s notoriously difficult to raise convincing arguments against them. Roos suggests that some Forest Hills residents may be bothered by the off-limits nature of a Mormon temple, which would not be open to the general community like other church buildings usually are. Kids from the neighborhood can run down to the Methodist Church on Old Hickory for quick game of basketball at the church gym, but they wouldn’t be able to do that at the temple. Instead, use of the temple would be restricted to the most sacred rites and ceremonies of the church. In short, it would be located in the community, but it would not necessarily be a part of it.
Because the Temple would be used so seldoma few Sundays each yearand because there are so few Mormons in Middle Tennessee, there seems to be no reason to worry about even more traffic at Old Hickory and Hillsboro. Indeed, traffic studies by Metro and traffic consultant RPM & Associates revealed that the temple would generate little more traffic for the corridor.
Ultimately, the confrontation seems to be one of irresistible force and immovable object. The residents of Forest Hills resent being forced to make a zoning change they don’t want; the Mormonshaving invested heavily in propertyrefuse to back down. There are other places in Nashville the temple could be built, but the Mormons seem unwilling to look at them. Why, they ask, perhaps with history in mind, should they be forced out again? For both sides, principle is at stake.
“The Forest Hills zoning ordinance is form over substance,” says Erb. “They’ve created a document that is unconstitutional; everyone, including those opposed, has said this spot is the perfect spot.” Meanwhile, White says he does not believe the Mormons’ lawsuit (which charges violation of the right of religious practice) will be heard before 1997. He is confident, he says, that the city is on safe ground.
“I can’t believe a court will force the city to make a zoning change,” he says. “Forest Hills is full of churches. There is no effort to restrict religious practice here.”
White may be right. The courts do seem to give cities broad latitude in determining their zoning practices. Last year, the City of Franklin changed zoning on a piece of property to prevent construction of mini-warehouses. When First American National Bank sued, it lost and then lost on appeal.
On the other hand, Erb says the church is “resolved to pursue this as long as it takes.” Let the City of Forest Hills take note: The Mormons have been patient before.
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