About 15 miles southeast of Nashville, the picturesque town of Nolensville has antiques stores, a feed mill more than a century old, a creek that burbles lazily along the main drag, and some of Middle Tennessee's best barbecue. But the development wars that have flared up all around Nashville have erupted here as well, and on the unlikeliest of battlefields: a ballpark.
When Nolensville officials said last summer they needed a small piece of Richard Jobe's two acres for eastern access to the county's nearby ball field, he thought they could do business. The easement they asked for was small enough. Basically, they just wanted to cut across the Jobe family homestead, which sits at the corner of Rocky Fork Road and Newsome Lane in the middle of town, to reach the ballpark just a little ways down Rocky Fork.
Since then, though, the easement plans have swelled far beyond what the town originally proposed, the family says. Now the Jobes, descendants of a former slave who settled in Nolensville more than a century ago, are engaged in a bitter fight with the town fathers. And with the matter soon going to court, the fight just keeps getting uglier.
Jobe and his sisters, Bernice Fitzgerald, Glenda Morton and Carolyn Wiggins, own a little white house their daddy built in 1957 after coming back from World War II. Their neighbors—a cluster of families who, like the Jobes, are black—live on a wooded rise overlooking the ball field.
Set back behind them are Ballenger Farms and Stonebrook, two subdivisions brimming with $340,000 cookie-cutter, two-story brick affairs—harbingers of municipal growing pains. Its residents include Nolensville's mayor, Beth Lothers, and at least one town alderman.
A collision between progressive newcomers and deep-rooted families like Jobe's was probably inevitable. And Jobe, a broad man in suspenders who talks in a preacher's sonorous cadences, says he was told the easement was being done to accommodate folks in the subdivisions, saving them a longer drive to a park that was literally just around the corner.
But he says he didn't have a problem with that. With yet another new subdivision in the offing, the Rocky Fork Road was due for realigning anyway.
"[Engineers] selected this option because it took the least amount of land possible," Beth Lothers says.
But then the six-foot sliver of land the town proposed to take along Newsome Lane kept getting bigger—growing to 6,000 square feet, Jobe says. The town offered Jobe and his kin $8,000 and a land swap, but in late July negotiations fizzled. The family no longer wanted the town's deal. Jobe says the expanded access now encroached on his septic tank overflow, and it reshaped the property in a way that could affect its future value. Lothers says the land swap maintains the property value, forming the swatch of land into a rectangle rather than a triangle.
Stymied by what Lothers calls a resistance to change, the town took a giant leap. After a vote by the town aldermen on Sept. 4, Jobe and his sisters found themselves slapped with a condemnation lawsuit—the first in Nolensville's history.
Why the urgency? Lothers said that the land was being seized in the name of public safety. Since the park had only one entrance and one exit, the easement was now necessary for the ingress and egress of ballpark goers and emergency vehicles. This struck some as curious. After all, the ballpark was a Williamson County project, and the county never addressed the looming threat of poor access.
Gone, too, was any mention of the folks in the new subdivisions. Lothers insists public safety was always at the heart of the project. In a letter to the family dated Aug. 9, she seemed bewildered by their change of heart:
"The Town of Nolensville waited for this appraisal and made phone contact to check on its status, but it was never received. During this waiting period, as Mayor, I received a phone message on 7/21/08 by Carolyn Wiggins, another property owner, stating that the family did not want to consider or participate in the right of way request. The town had never been told that before.... With the proposed park access road, the old Rocky Fork Road will be used primarily for park and emergency access."
"Hogwash," says John Fitzgerald, Bernice's husband, who snorts at the town using public safety as its justification. A retired assistant fire chief in Franklin, Fitzgerald says there's only one big event at the ballpark every year, and that's July 4. On that day, he adds, emergency personnel will be on hand anyway.
Alderman Joe Curtsinger, the sole dissenting vote in the town council's march toward condemnation, says the whole thing stinks.
"The only people who benefit are Ballenger Farms and Stonebrook subdivision," says Curtsinger, a burly, pickup-driving small-town doctor, looking out over the ballpark's relatively small parking lot. "It's such a hollow excuse."
To those watching the legal machinations of the Nolensville Town Hall condemnation lawsuit, public safety looks more and more like convenience for the chosen few—the few who live in the nearby subdivisions. But if the town thought it was simply bulldozing the path of least resistance across the Jobes' property, it thought wrong. Richard Jobe and his sisters are going to court to prove the condemnation lawsuit is arbitrary and without merit.
To outsiders, the entire Rocky Fork debacle has been rocky as hell—a comedy of errors for a new, small-town administration with no experience managing large construction projects. First, Curtsinger says, they missed the mark on the dedicated right-of-way and built part of the new Rocky Fork Road on the wrong property. Fortunately for the town, the landowner didn't raise a stink about it.
Worse, much of the new Rocky Fork is built on a floodplain. Anyone who's lived in Nolensville long enough, like Richard Jobe, has seen that swath of land submerged time and again. Then there was the three-foot elevation difference between the old Rocky Fork Road and the new Rocky Fork Road. Sections of it should have been open about a year ago.
Perhaps the saddest part of the entire affair is that the Jobes are not some Johnny-come-lately pebble in town hall's boot. According to the Nolensville Historical Society, Sam Jobe came to Rutherford County as a slave from Virginia. In 1884 he moved to Nolensville and married Laura Polk. One of the children, Frank, owned a farm on Sanford Road that he paid for by working at a Ford factory in Detroit. This life was hard on him, though, and he died at age 39 after a bout with smallpox. In 1957, the elder Richard C. Jobe purchased the two acres and put a house on it, right there on Rocky Fork.
"My dad struggled and worked hard to buy that property and to build the home that's on it," Richard Jobe says. "He served his country and he deserved more than for his property to be treated the way it's been treated. I think we're being treated as second-class citizens."
Lothers thinks the town has gone above and beyond to be reasonable with the family.
"Unfortunately, sometimes emotion gets in the way of understanding," Lothers said. "I hope in [a court] setting, with that diagram, they'll see it's not that much land."
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