Rev. Paul Durham, the wealthy and well connected preacher, is in the middle of a bizarre and sordid neighborhood dispute in South Nashville, after pushing for a zoning change on a piece of property his church owns. Skilled at avoiding controversy even while assembling a sprawling real estate portfolio as pastor of Radnor Baptist Church, Durham will likely triumph before the Metro Council next week. But his reputation might not be as easy to salvage.
“He told me God would forgive me for being hostile toward this development,” recalls Carolyn Dyce, who has publicly opposed Durham’s efforts to rezone a former swim club near her home. “I told him that I used to work in mental health and that people who talk to God are considered schizophrenic.”
Durham didn’t dispute Dyce’s recollection of their conversation, saying he preferred not to comment. It should come as no surprise to the reverend, however, that this neighborhood battle has become personal. In July 2001, when Radnor Baptist Church bought the Nashville Swim Club property on Northcrest Drive for only $175,000, Durham told local neighbors that he would turn it into a youth center. But nearly two years later, Durham is pushing for a zoning amendment that would enable a prospective developer to erect close to 70 town homes on the 8-acre property. In the surrounding working-class neighborhood just 500 feet from Nolensville Road, near the Haywood Lane intersection, residents are split on the proposed change.
“We would like to keep it a neighborhood,” says Robert Baker, who lives near the old swim club. “I’m concerned as everyone else about what could wind up there.”
Some neighbors support Durham’s proposal, claiming that it’s the best way to develop the property. The land is already zoned residential, allowing for the construction of nearly 30 homes on the tract. Many of the residents favoring the measure say that the town home development that Durham’s proposing would be preferable to an outside developer building single-family homes. But the neighbors who resist the zoning measure, which the Metro Council will decide on its third and final reading next Tuesday, aren’t exactly drawing a line in the sand. They just want the bill to be deferred until next fall. That’s when they will finally have a replacement for Metro Council member Michelle Arriola, who played a starring role in this neighborhood rift until she suddenly resigned last spring.
Arriola, who represented the district for nearly eight years, originally sponsored the rezoning measure. To some residents, that didn’t come as a surprise. Arriola has long enjoyed a friendly relationship with Durham; in fact, the pastor donated $1,000 to her husband John’s unsuccessful 5th District congressional campaign last year.
When residents heard about the proposed zoning change, they worried that it would bring more traffic to the already congested and accident-prone Nolensville Road. They also worried about what would happen to their property values if 77 town home units were built in their quiet neighborhood. Two residents called council member Michelle Arriola and now say they were shocked at her response.
“We called to say we were opposed to this,” recalls Dee Fields, who has lived on Northcrest Drive for more than 30 years. “She said, 'If you don’t want this, you’re going to have multiple families of blacks and Mexicans.’ ”
Arriola allegedly had a similar message for Dyce. “She told me, if we didn’t vote for this, there would be Mexicans, blacks and gays living there.”
Arriola’s comments were soon reported in the pages of The Tennessean and, shortly after, she resigned from the council, just months away from the end of her term. Arriola’s official explanation was that she and her husband had bought a new house outside the district, but the controversy that stemmed from her role in the rezoning measure took its toll. Months after she resigned, Arriola is still smarting from the unflattering press coverage.
“The Bible says, 'Thou shall not bear false witness,’ ” she notes, adding that her husband John is of Mexican descent. “What those two women are saying is a sin.”
Arriola says that what she told Dyce and Fields was that, with town homes and an accompanying homeowner’s association, there’s more control over who moves in and how they maintain their property. With houses, there are fewer regulations. “I said there was no guarantee what kind of people could move in,” she says. “It could be anybody, white trashy people or polka dot people, just people who don’t maintain their property.”
Even though Arriola resigned from the council, her bill stayed alive and took on a life of its own. Vice Mayor Howard Gentry then assigned the bill to at-large council member Carolyn Baldwin Tucker and, much like Arriola, she crusaded for it. By a 5-3 vote, the Metro Planning Commission approved the bill, virtually guaranteeing its passage.
At the May 6 Metro Council meetings, residents on both sides spoke out about the proposed zoning change. And the familiar face of Arriola was there as well, cavorting with her former colleagues and pushing for the bill. “It was my bill, and I felt I needed to be there,” she explains.
Durham also testified, claiming that he and the church tried to make the property work, “but the economics are not feasible.”
If the rezoning measure passes, Durham and his church will be able to sell the property for more than $310,000. But, he says, the church won’t be making a profit on the deal. While the initial buying price was $175,000, the church assumed prior expenses, including debts and outstanding utility bills totaling around $50,000. Added to that were the repairs the church made on the roof, plumbing and pool. If and when the property is sold, Radnor Baptist Church will barely recoup its investment, Durham says. If the zoning measure isn’t approved, the pastor says that the he’ll still be able to sell the propertybut not for $310,000.
“We just made a business decision; it’s that simple,” Durham says. “I’ve made it very clear to members of the community who are fussing about it that if they want to refund us our money, we’d be happy to give it back to the community. But nobody has stepped up.”
Durham says that when the church first opened the swim club and turned it into a community center, it lost money because “it didn’t get sufficient participation from the community.” A few neighbors, however, say that the club was often closed and kept erratic hours.
In his own smooth stylewhich seems to backfire with many of the local residentsDurham claims that he’s responsive to the concerns of many of the neighbors. One such man, James Fields, says that he’s legally blind and that a new development of town homes would only add to the hazards of negotiating the traffic on Northcrest Drive when he walks down the hill to Nolensville Road. Durham replies, “I have a granddaughter who is legally blind and if I could give up my eyes for her I would; if anyone is sympathetic to people who are legally blind it’s Paul Durham.” To which he adds that he plans to build a sidewalk from the development to Nolensville Road.
Durham is far from your typical Baptist preacher. He owns and develops real estate in four different counties. To some, it’s unseemly for a man of the cloth to wheel and deal, but Durham says that his real estate ventures are simply “freedom of choice.” “It’s the beauty of being an American, and the same is true with churches or any nonprofit,” he says. In fact, his church does own property in Davidson County.
But it’s just as American to worry about the value of your home. The residents who oppose Durham’s zoning bill don’t claim to be in the majority, and they don’t expect the property to remain undeveloped. All they want is for the Metro Council to put off the zoning bill until they get a council member after the August election. And if the newly elected council member supports the zoning change, they say they’ll accept it.
“We’ve said we’re willing to throw the dice and take the chance that the next council member will represent us,” Dyce says. “Nobody’s representing us; the council is just representing Paul Durham.
A keen observer of local politics who once flirted very publicly with running for mayor, Durham should understand the value of compromise. But he won’t budge in this case. Asked what’s wrong with a deferral on the bill, he says, “It costs the church $2,400 a month” to continue to hold on to the property. He adds that a deferral is “not fairthat’s just not right. That’s just a way to put it off.”
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