Sprawl Mart 

The world's largest retailer wants to develop a coveted piece of Davidson County's wooded wilderness. Neightbors are affluent and organized—but can the big box be stopped?

The world's largest retailer wants to develop a coveted piece of Davidson County's wooded wilderness. Neightbors are affluent and organized—but can the big box be stopped?

If you've ever hopped on Highway 100 and headed toward Fairview, you know how long it takes to get to the southwest tip of Davidson County. Drive past the Warner parks' expansive green forests. Past the new Ensworth High School's towering brick buildings. Past Chaffin's Barn theater. Past the Loveless Cafe and the Natchez Trace. And keep going.

Drive over a hill and through the tiny community—just a green sign, really—of Linton. This is rural countryside, complete with a rundown gas station or two, a few little stores that don't seem to care if you stop in or not and a sprawling green cemetery. It's a winding, two-lane stretch of Highway 100 where the high speed limits favor people who know the roads well.

But if you've been paying attention for the past few years, you know that this area of Middle Tennessee, which includes Bellevue, Fairview and lands around and between, is growing at a breakneck pace. New subdivisions spring up nearly every day, each larger than the next, increasing the strain on roads, sewers and natural resources. And each new house built out there is quickly occupied by someone who wants to escape the frustrating gridlock of our blacktopped, traffic-filled city.

Trouble is, they're bringing the city with them. The farther Nashvillians move away from town, the farther the grocery stores, churches and Blockbusters they depend on daily seem to spread. Commuters clog the winding two-lane roads, and the idyllic countryside, though still largely intact, increasingly finds itself threatened by sprawling growth. That's why some of Nashville's westward migrants, using zoning and planning rules, are trying to shut the gate behind them, defining boundaries for commercial growth and preserving the wilderness they came to admire in the first place.

That's where Wal-Mart comes in. Sources who have met with Wal-Mart developers say America's largest corporation is looking to put a new store at the east intersection of Highways 96 and 100, which is, interestingly, just a five-mile drive to the Charlotte Pike Supercenter. A new Wal-Mart, the logic goes, would allow the big box retailer to capture potential shoppers from Fairview, Franklin and Bellevue, putting the chain's newest outpost smack-dab in the middle of a triangle of upper-middle-class consumer power. It's a pretty good idea from a business perspective, and if history is any guide, Wal-Mart usually gets what it wants.

The aforementioned residents of this area—including some pretty well-heeled folks—have heard that the terrain-changing chain is targeting their community as a priority. For the past few months, Bellevue and its outlying areas have been consumed with talk about the fate of a large land tract at the junction of highways 96 and 100. Those in the know are aware that the property is changing hands. Two elderly brothers are selling the plot to a developer who builds Wal-Marts. That same contractor has met with several elected officials to discuss plans for a retail and housing development on the property. Already, relations between the land buyer and neighbors has degenerated into a lawyer free-for-all, complete with citations, heated communications and now litigation over alleged trespassing violations.

Wal-Mart officials haven't officially confirmed that the retailer is considering the site. But several public officials, including the area's Metro Council member, Charlie Tygard, say that the retail goliath has a long-stated interest in this property. In the process, some of these officials are contradicting each other's stories—and the official story of the property developer.

Yep, things are getting messy in one little corner of Davidson County. Battle lines are being drawn for a fight between large landowners by local standards and a super-sized corporation even by global ones. Similar skirmishes have erupted before, both in Davidson County and around the country, but this one may be different due to the sacrosanct land over which it will be fought. At stake is the pastoral identity of a corner community squeezed by growth, a pocket of Metro historically fond of its verdant hills. Things could get ugly if the land is to stay pretty. And along the way we may learn how—and if—Nashville's planning process works.

It all started a few months ago, according to Nancy Schwartz, the president of a subdivision homeowners' association near the 96/100 intersection. (She didn't want us to identify which subdivision for fear of angering neighbors who disagree with her.) That's when she learned that 85-year-old Robert Stamps was in the process of selling a big piece of land abutting her property.

The plot is undeveloped and vast. Green woodlands and gentle streams stretch across 310 hilly acres, half in Davidson County and half in Williamson County. It's been in the family for generations, says Stamps, passed down to him and his brother through a long line that dates back to W.H. Allison. Allison reportedly bought the property from James Robertson, founder of Nashville.

Not surprisingly, Stamps didn't want to sell the land, but health problems and the related need to get his affairs in order forced the Stamps brothers to divest of the family property. Last fall they listed it with Franklin Realtor Clarence Johnson, and earlier this year Stamps entered a buyer's agreement with CBM Enterprises president Mickey Mitchell. The deal is scheduled to close this week.

Little was known at first about CBM, and for that matter little is known about them now. According to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, CBM is based in La Vergne and does excavation work. Bellevue neighbors heard through the grapevine that the company "builds Wal-Marts," and indeed the company made local news in 2000 while building the 220,000-square-foot Wal-Mart in Cool Springs. CBM is also reported to have participated in the construction of a Wal-Mart in Ashland City.

People were concerned enough in March about CBM's plans to build a Wal-Mart on the Stamps property—although no one at the time could prove it—that a group quickly formed to cancel the project, or even stop the sale, before it could go any further. The well-to-do land preservers of southwest Davidson County included Frist family in-law Chuck Elcan, deep-pocketed businessman and landowner Aubrey Preston, and Nancy Hiatt, wife of singer-songwriter John Hiatt. Among others, they consulted with Stamps, called Mitchell, and contacted environmentally minded businessmen John Noel and Paul Sloan, along with environmental advocate Barry Sulkin.

Members of this coalition regularly corresponded with Metro council member Charlie Tygard, who confirms that he and other officials met with Mitchell earlier this year to discuss such a project. "I get a dozen phone calls a day, or I did for about a month," says Tygard, all of them asking, "What are we going to do to stop this?"

For his part, Stamps—who is recovering from cancer surgery—immediately felt awful upon learning that his pristine property might be turned into a mega-store. "The location of the property—I never considered it would be anything other than residential," says the genteel octogenarian. "I had no idea Wal-Mart would want to locate all the way down here."

Saying it was "my oversight" that no conditions were placed upon the property for sale, Stamps consulted with his fellow community members and then moved to stop the process. "As soon as I started hearing about what they planned to do with it, I decided I would like to get out of the contract and retain the property or sell it to someone who would keep it residential," he says. Through an intermediary, Stamps asked Mitchell if he would release him from the contract. Mitchell refused. (Mitchell also refused to return repeated phone calls from the Scene.)

Then, after much consultation, the group of concerned residents pooled resources and raised enough money to buy Mitchell out of the contract. Earlier this month, these "interested parties" reportedly offered him several hundred thousand dollars—about a third of the sale price—to walk away from the deal. According to sources close to the aborted negotiation, Mitchell refused to discuss the matter until after the July 1 closing. By then, of course, it would be too late.

All this money and secrecy over a property that no one, at the time, could definitively prove Wal-Mart was even interested in.

What people did know, however, is that there was heavy machinery doing something on the lot. An adjacent homeowner (who asked the Scene not to publish his name, saying, "I moved out here because I wanted to remain anonymous") reports that he was doing yard work in late May or early June when he noticed "track vehicles" on the old Stamps property. "I found an operator on a front-end mower and asked him what he was doing," says the neighbor. He reported that he was working for Mickey Mitchell "grating roads and clearing batteries, metal and tires from this property."

The homeowner called the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and inquired about the process for clearing lands of potentially hazardous materials like batteries. Eventually, water quality inspectors from Davidson and Williamson County showed up to do a co-inspection of the property. What they found was that CBM was clearing a network of overgrown dirt roads that had long ago been carved into the property. "At the time we were out there we couldn't make heads or tails of the situation...so we issued a stop-work order," says Williamson County stormwater quality coordinator Robert Karesh.

His Davidson County counterpart confirms the site visit, saying that it was prompted by a report of clearing activities without a permit. "It did appear to be a violation," he says, noting that a citation was given to workers on site.

Since that time, however, CBM representative David Lowry has contacted both agencies, claiming the clearing was agricultural in nature and, thus, legal. "He assured me that they weren't trying to develop anything; they were just cleaning up the property," says Karesh, who says he was told the new owner loves to hunt and was clearing it for that reason.

Some people, however, aren't buying that explanation. Why, after all, would an entire development company be preparing a field for hunting? "What a bunch of bullshit," one disgruntled neighbor put it.

Meanwhile, runoff from the road clearing is reportedly damaging adjacent properties, prompting another complaint from the adjacent homeowner who made the earlier report to the EPA. That, in turn, has prompted a second site inspection. "Since it's coming from an agricultural activity, we can't do anything about it," says Josh Hayes, a Davidson County inspector. "It is one property we'll be keeping a close eye on to make sure activity out there is related to agriculture."

This isn't the first time a government agency has promised to watch CBM—whose voicemail hold message boasts of a "reputation for quality, honesty and integrity"—more carefully. In February of 2000, the company illegally rerouted the South Prong Spencer Creek while working on the Cool Springs Wal-Mart. In a Tennessean article, Mitchell called the situation a "mistake," saying it was caused by a "breakdown in communication." A Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) inspector said, "We're going to be watching them." Sounds familiar.

Those front-end loaders aren't preparing land for agricultural use; they're quite literally clearing the way for Wal-Mart's entrance into the rural southwest corner of Davidson County. At least that's the impression one gets after talking to Fairview mayor Stuart Johnson and Metro councilman Charlie Tygard. According to separate interviews with these two officials, Wal-Mart has been considering the property for quite a while, and CBM's Mickey Mitchell is actively pursuing plans to build a Wal-Mart right at the intersection of 96 and 100.

That's why in late December or early January, Mitchell and his attorney met with Tygard to tell him Wal-Mart wanted a store in the Franklin-Fairview-Bellevue corridor and ask what the process would be for building a store on that property. Tygard says he told them the options were a zoning change—which requires approval by the entire Metro Council—or an amendment to the Subarea Six plan, the updated 2003 document that explicitly forbids commercial growth beyond Highway 100 and Old Harding Road.

A month later, Tygard says, Mitchell came by with a "chicken-scratch" sketch of the property. It depicted two possible locations for Wal-Mart: one on the Davidson County side and one on the Williamson County side. Tygard then called Nancy Schwartz, the nearby homeowners' chair, asking her "what she would want" if Wal-Mart were to choose the Davidson site: intersection improvements, construction material requirements, light source regulations, signage restrictions and the like.

To hear Schwartz tell it, the phone call was more of a bribe. "He basically said that if homeowners would just cooperate, 'We'd give you a stoplight at your subdivision's entrance, we'd redo the entrance,' things like that," says the 52-year-old community leader, who echoes others' complaints that Tygard has been secretive throughout this process. She continued organizing neighbors—and money.

Meanwhile, it's no secret that Johnson, the Fairview mayor, wants Wal-Mart to open a store near his municipality because such a large development would help ease Fairview's growing pains. (Construction of a Wal-Mart would almost certainly result in higher sales tax revenues and, hence, more city services.) Johnson says he participated in talks with a developer almost two years ago about opening a strip mall with a Target or Wal-Mart in it, but the talks collapsed when Westhaven—the planned 2,750-home super-subdivision—opened on Highway 96, just down the road from the now-infamous 96/100 intersection.

Johnson opposes building a Wal-Mart at the 96/100 junction for a mix of altruistic reasons (local property owners don't want it near them) and selfish ones (he wants it near him). But he says Wal-Mart has made it clear to Fairview officials—namely city manager Al Deck—that the big box likes that location a lot. "[Wal-Mart officials in] Arkansas told our city manager that the site at 96 and 100 is their number one site in the country," he says, adding that the developer is planning to build not only a store but a "Wal-Mart village" that would contain satellite housing developments—all orbiting the Wal-Mart mothership. (Tygard confirms that the plans he viewed contained retail and housing developments.)

Deck, the city manager, denied participating in any discussions about Wal-Mart setting up shop at that location—sort of. "Any conversation I may have had, had absolutely nothing to do with that," he said last week, rather awkwardly. "And I did not have a conversation with Wal-Mart."

What about with the developer of the property?

(Silence.) "I have had a conversation with them in the past, but not last week."

Under persistent questioning about conversations between Deck and CBM officials, the city manager finally presented one dubious explanation. "Maybe we just wanted to meet and greet each other..." he offered.

Beyond that, the Fairview official is tight-lipped about his discussions with Mitchell and company. "I won't share any conversation, any hypothetical or anything else," said an exasperated Deck. "I'm not going to answer any question about any conversation. And I'm ending this conversation unless you having anything else you'd like to ask me about."

So there you have it. Fairview officials can't get their stories straight. A developer may well be doing illegal work on a property that his company says is being prepared not for a Wal-Mart but for hunting. An old man feels swindled out of family land. And Charlie Tygard's constituents accuse him of offenses ranging from caginess and secrecy to collusion and dishonesty.

With regard to these allegations, the more benign ones ring true. After all, Tygard publicly mentioned "rampant rumors about a 'big box' store" but discounted their veracity, saying it was "entirely too early to fuel these rumors with speculation." (When exactly is the right time to fuel rumors with speculation, anyway?) But all along Tygard knew the community scuttlebutt was indeed based in fact. In the same space—a June Westview News column—he cryptically alluded to "several [zoning] proposals coming forth in the next few months that will generate community interest."

Tygard's defense, restated in an interview with the Scene, is, "I'm not going to address rumors." But when they're largely accurate—and about a surprisingly stealthy multinational corporation with a history of railroading unsuspecting communities—it might not hurt to give the old constituent base a heads-up.

So you can understand why these folks are peeved. "They're basically taking a rural area and raping it," says nearby property owner and straight talker Alan Costa. "There's zero consideration—it's, 'Let's make money, throw in a Wal-Mart and screw everybody else.' "

Is this NIMBYism? You bet. But when it comes to growth, you've got to draw the line somewhere. And that's the job of the Metro Planning department (which, incidentally, is about to get dealt some serious budget cuts by the mayor and Metro Council). That's why the Subarea Six plan—the continually evolving road map for growth in southwest Davidson County—was created and is periodically revised (as recently as last year) by a team of trained professionals and a cadre of concerned community members. The plan states in no uncertain terms that commercial growth should not extend beyond Old Harding Road because the community wants to preserve its identity, its distinctive rural character. "One of the most important goals expressed by community participants in this planning process," concludes the report summary, "was the preservation of these beautiful hills that are such a special characteristic of Bellevue."

Tygard says he's not afraid to buck the planning commission should things reach that stage, but he fails to mention that their recommendation is based on a quite democratic planning process. (Arguably, Planning is one of Metro's most intelligent, efficient and popularly responsive departments.) He rattles off self-fulfilling prophecies like, "Eventually something's going to develop there," apparently missing the point that the community has the power to control commercial growth.

Perhaps Nashville is sprawling at such a startling rate because government officials—including but by no means limited to Tygard—treat urban sprawl as an inevitability. It's not.

Nor is controlling growth through sensible local government intervention inevitably a tactic of the freedom-hating left. "I don't think it's a conservative/liberal thing, and that's the way it will get portrayed," says the anonymous adjacent homeowner, who labels himself conservative. "It's going to cost the public sector more money to support this private development."

In any event, Bellevue residents want answers from their elected officials—OK, that's pretty much just Charlie Tygard—to compensate for the secrecy of CBM and Wal-Mart. (According to Schwartz, in a recent, terse phone conversation, Mitchell said to her, "Notice I've never denied it [that a Wal-Mart would be built there]." Now that's what we call communicative progress.) They want a full accounting of the behind-the-scenes wrangling that's gone on for more than six months. They want to know that the community plan they designed together will be faithfully followed. Maybe they just want to have a community meeting.

As the conservative property owner says, "Taking two elderly brothers who are under duress because of medical problems and snatching their land out from underneath them to build a Wal-Mart is not my idea of capital expansion." And it's not anybody's idea of good community business practices. But then again, in a time when local communities are rapidly losing their ability to control global commercial intrusions into their neighborhoods, their farmlands and their streams, it may be the new American way.

—Photos by Eric England


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