How Hard Can It Be? 

City hall fights environmentally minded businessmen

City hall fights environmentally minded businessmen

When real estate executives Bill Freeman and Jimmy Webb began assembling a 1,100-acre tract of land in southwest Davidson County several years ago, their natural impulse might have been typically business-minded—to go for profit.

In short order, they could have subdivided the property, put roads and sewage systems on it, and sold the tracts for more than they paid.

Doing that would have been easy enough. The land, located near state Hwy. 100, was already zoned to accommodate a 300-home planned unit development.

But Freeman and Webb had different ideas. Having purchased the property with the late environmentalists Dan and Margaret Maddox, they wanted to do something greener. Since buying the farm property, in fact, they have made great strides in turning the land into something of a rare wildlife habitat.

To begin with, Freeman says they “abandoned” the zoning that would have allowed them to put up row after row of unimaginative homes. Rather, he says, “We went to the Metro Planning Commission and asked them to return it back to agricultural zoning.”

The group then hired a botanist and a farm manager to begin researching and planting native Tennessee grasses and other flora that would be ideal to attract and feed wildlife. They also delved into their pocketbooks to introduce small game and other wildlife on the property. All told, they have spent about $500,000 on cultivating the land as a wildlife habitat.

“It’s taken us about five years to do that,” Freeman says. “Our idea was that, over the long term, we would maximize the value of the land that way rather than putting in roads and sewer systems and subdividing it and then selling it.” Eventually, he says, he, Webb, and several other “like-minded” people may decide to build homes for themselves on the property.

What the fuss is about

Donald Hosse, the wildlife education program coordinator at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), characterizes Freeman and Webb as “environmentalists” whose property is a rare commodity, especially “with as much development as is happening in Middle Tennessee now.”

Unfortunately for Freeman and Webb, a development has arrived.

Metro Government has approval to build a strobe-lighted radio tower just a few hundred feet away from the property they call the South Harpeth farm. The 400-foot tower is to be used as part of Metro’s new, $40 million, 800-megahertz radio system for public safety and general government. The Metro Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) last week granted approval for the city to build the tower on nearby state-owned property. And construction of the tower has ignited a pitched battle between Freeman and Webb on the one hand, and the city on the other.

The tower, Freeman and Webb say, would not only detract from the aesthetics of the property, but it would threaten the migratory bird populations that inhabit and pass through the farm. They have provided scientific studies to the city that show birds are attracted by the lights on such towers, and then are maimed or killed by them. What’s more, they’ve paid for—and provided to Metro—an engineering study that finds better—and available—sites nearby on which the city can build its tower. Meanwhile, they add, city officials have resisted meeting with them to talk about alternative sites or to hear their objections.

Beyond those concerns, Freeman and Webb have found plenty to fight for on principal. And while it may be difficult for city officials or others to be sympathetic to a couple of well-off business executives planing their retirement getaway, the two men make a compelling case that the city’s methods to gain approval for the radio tower have been not only political, but even oppressive and perhaps duplicitous. Following last week’s BZA meeting, the two men vowed to undertake an all-out legal battle with the city.

Freeman and Webb are prominent real estate executives in Nashville whose civic and political involvements run wide and deep. They donated office space to the “NFL Yes!” campaign. Between them, they have served on the boards of the Nashville Convention Center, the Better Business Bureau, and Buddies of Nashville, among many other organizations. They are affluent, well-educated, and well-connected—consummate insiders in a city where such status truly counts.

Yet, in this recent battle with city officials, they would appear to be distinct outsiders with serious frustrations about what they claim is Metro’s bureaucratic environment.

Metro officials have said the site located a few hundred feet away from the Freeman-Webb property is the “only” one where the tower can be located to achieve the proper signal coverage for the radio system.

But Freeman and Webb, who recognize the need for a new system, have disputed that claim, backing it up by submitting to the city last week a study by an engineer at Tennessee Technological University. The study concludes that the property “is not the only adequate site for the tower in the area and that it has no unique characteristics which would make it the ‘optimum’ site.”

Along with a host of other concerns raised by their attorney, Hugh Howser Jr. of Trabue Sturdivant &Dewitt, before the BZA last week, the issue of other or better sites seemed to be voiced in a vacuum.

“It’s inconsistent to believe you can’t have a compelling public purpose served by a tower and, at the same time, take into consideration the environment,” Howser told the Scene. “Why do they have to be diametrically opposed?” Howser says he is planning to appeal the BZA decision on behalf of his clients and seek a delay in the construction of the tower, pending the outcome of the case.

Bad vibes

Bill Freeman says he knew the fight was going to be a tough one about six months ago, after receiving notice of a BZA meeting about the proposed tower. “After we attended the first meeting and opposed the tower,” he says, “we didn’t get notice of the second meeting.” Freeman says that when they later asked about the second meeting, they were told that the distance from their property to the tower location had been “remeasured” and that their property didn’t fall within the distance that requires the city to give notice. “That’s the kind of political shenanigans that’s been going on,” Freeman says.

Since then, he says there have been other distasteful developments. Several weeks ago, for example, the Metro Council passed a series of amendments to Metro’s zoning ordinance, one of which was, apparently, directly related to the city’s tower issue.

The amendment in question broadened the definition of who could apply to the BZA for a variance or special exception on a piece of property. Until then, an applicant had to be a “landowner” or “agent” for an owner. The new definition added the words “government official or department.”

Freeman, Webb, and Howser claim that the amendment was slipped into the ordinance specifically to help the city gain approval for the tower on state-owned property. At that point, they say, Metro did not have the proper permission from the state to proceed before the BZA. Therefore, they surmise, city officials simply changed the law.

Metro project administrator Peter Heidenreich, who is heading the development of the new radio system, says the city did have a “right of entry” from the state to go ahead with the tower’s approval. But another Metro official says the tower project did, in fact, inspire the zoning amendment. “I guess to some degree, that [the tower issue] did have something to do with it,” says Rick Shepherd, Metro’s zoning examination chief. Still, Shepherd says, there are legitimate reasons for the government to be able to ask for variances or special exceptions on properties.

“Without that ordinance, then Metro couldn’t meet their criteria for being able to go forward with this, because they are not the landowner of that property and they have never gotten a lease agreement with the state of Tennessee,” Howser says.

He argues that the ordinance is a “nullity” because certain amendments to the ordinance came on the floor of the Metro Council without being reviewed by the Metro Planning Commission or being published in a newspaper for 30 days, as he says is required by state law.

Unfazed by Howser’s objections that the city failied to seek other, more appropriate sites for the tower, the BZA was no more compelled by his argument that the zoning ordinance was quietly manipulated to accommodate the city’s plans for the tower. The vote to grant Metro the go-ahead was 6-0.

If pigs could fly

Metro officials have been couching the struggle between the city and Freeman, Webb, and 600 neighbors who have signed petitions opposing the location of the tower as one of “birds versus people.” The existing emergency communications system for Metro police and fire departments is so completely inadequate, city officials argued before the BZA, that a new one would literally save lives.

“They miss the point,” Howser says of Metro’s argument and the BZA’s unanimous vote. The “total point” of Freeman’s and Webb’s objection, he says, was that the site was not, as the city claimed, the “only” appropriate site.

Heidenreich addresses the point this way: “Does the tower have to be located on precisely that piece of dirt? No, it doesn’t,” he says. “But the tower needs to be located in that area. If we moved this tower half a mile down the road, my suspicion is that the arguments about the site will be the same.”

Metro officials and members of the BZA have even questioned Freeman’s and Webb’s claim that they have been working for several years with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) to cultivate the 1,100-acre property as a wildlife habitat. During both last week’s board meeting and in interviews with the Scene, city officials have suggested or implied the claim was untrue. TWRA’s Donald Hosse, however, quickly confirmed his and the agency’s work with the real estate partners.

The struggle over the tower for Metro’s radio communications system will now move to Davidson County Chancery Court, where Freeman and Webb say they will file an appeal to reverse the BZA decision.

They say they are prepared to spend the resources necessary to block the tower’s erection and force the city at least to consider alternative sites. “What the city has done is pick the only tract of land in Davidson County where the owners are attempting to create wildlife habitat,” Freeman says, noting the old adage that “no good deed goes unpunished.”

“We don’t mind losing a fair fight,” Freeman says. “But there are just too many things that they’re doing that aren’t right.”

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