That goofy cow glares at Jack May every day, or at least when he's staying in Nashville rather than at his Mexican villa. Near May's West End condo, the cow stares down from a billboard that urges Nashville to just say no to a second downtown.
It's an in-your-face message for May from the folks around Bells Bend. And who can blame them for talking trash? How often in history have a bunch of crunchy granola people managed to stop rich developers from doing whatever they please? These aging hippies are grittier than you might think.
With a little help from the rednecks and professional types who also happen to live in Bells Bend, they've somehow come out on top against the mother of all developments—the gigantic, $4 billion retail, residential and office complex that May is proposing for their rural corner of Davidson County. It's like a band of beleaguered sodbusters rising up to stop the railroad in the Old West. Only in the movies. Or in Bells Bend.
"One of my neighbors has a T-shirt that says the hippies were right. We'd just like to keep our area like it is," says Barry Sulkin, one of the generals in the battle of Bells Bend.
The neighbors are so pleased with themselves that, this week, a group of them are hanging out in the Adirondacks in upstate New York to celebrate their victory, shout from the mountaintops, commune with nature and learn more about how to protect their rolling pastures from real-estate speculators like May.
In the Adirondacks, apparently, they've figured it out. There exists in those mountains a special, harmonious blend of development and preservation. Even as you read this, experts at the New York state agency that develops the land-use policies are explaining it all to the emissaries from Tennessee.
In Bells Bend and the nearby Scottsboro community, they talk a lot about how they're not opposed to all development. But what they mean by development isn't what most people think of. Bells Bend wants organic fruit and vegetable markets, coffee houses, maybe a musicians' retreat and businesses that cater to kayaking, hiking, caving, birding, camping, biking or whatever else crunchy granola people like to do.
"This is the last corner of town where no development is," Sulkin says. "We still have a clean slate. No, this isn't like the Adirondacks or the Smokies, but it's the best we have left in Davidson County. You can get up on some of these bluffs here and it feels like you're in the Smokies or some exotic place, and you're right here in Davidson County. The idea is to do something positive with it that people can embrace and still make some money on it."
Bells Bend has been fighting bad ideas for years (remember the garbage dump the city wanted to locate there in 1989?), and they've gotten pretty good at it. They weren't alone this time. From across the city, Nashville's best and brightest PR hacks and political brawlers volunteered their services, because they think May Town is a colossally dumb idea that would not only sully Bells Bend, but suck the life out of downtown.
"I don't know that we have a secret to our success other than passion and commitment," says Sulkin, an environmental consultant. "We're not just a bunch of Podunk uneducated fools 100 miles from nowhere. We have professionals who live there. They're not playing with dummies."
For May Town, the coup de grâce may have been this summer's Planning Commission hearing, where the project's opponents successfully framed the question this way: Either you are against the greedy developers trying to destroy our beautiful countryside, or you are a heartless idiot.
A parade of Metro Council members joined outraged residents in denouncing May Town. The big moment came when grizzled farmer George West stood before the commission wearing a sweat-stained straw hat, looking like an aging Marlboro Man. He nearly burst into tears over the possibility of losing his beloved land.
"I tend 118 acres out there in Bells Bend," he told the commission in a raspy whisper, his lip trembling. "It's a labor of love...and I pray that it will never disappear. That's all I got to say."
As the Bells Bend neighbors looked on in bemusement, Tony Giarratana, the developer hired by May as pitchman for the project, practically yelled in frustration. "...[Y]ou'd be led to believe everyone in Bells Bend has lived there forever as an organic farmer," he cried. He apparently wished to convey a different image of his foes, but basically, all he had to speak for his side were a bunch of paid minions and contractors angling for new business.
This fight probably isn't finished yet. When commissioners deferred action this month, they asked questions about infrastructure costs, traffic patterns and various other matters. Giarratana is busy trying to come up with answers. In six months or so, he's expected to be back before the commission for another try. May already has invested $25 million, so he won't give up easily.
Which brings us back to what's happening this week in the Adirondacks. Residents hope to come up with ways to create a long-lasting land-use plan to protect Bells Bend from stupidity. Out of curiosity, Rick Bernhardt, the Planning Department executive director, went along on the trip.
"What they've been working on for the last 30 years in the Adirondacks is a system to provide long-term protection for a rural environment," Bernhardt says. "It balances some development with preservation. We want to know how they pull it off. Here, you can make rules, but they can always be changed. I'm interested in seeing how they've managed to sustain it."
Adds Sulkin: "We want to lock in what we want out here in a way that's more or less permanent so that we don't have to keep contesting bad ideas. Then we can welcome good ones. There's lots of things that would work out there besides subdivisions and shopping centers. We've got enough of them already."
Every newspaper needs a Ron Hart.
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