"There's Nothing Going On" 

Southwest Davidson County residents get nervous as bulldozers clear pristine land...for a Wal-Mart?

Southwest Davidson County residents get nervous as bulldozers clear pristine land...for a Wal-Mart?

They are unlikely conspiracy theorists. The city folk who have settled way out Highway 100 live in large homes surrounded by lush forests, gentle streams and, in some cases, other large homes. They're business people, attorneys and even a musician or two. Life has been good to these upscale rural dwellers, economically speaking. They can afford to travel. They have time to socialize.

And these days, they have time to protect their local environment. That's why a group of well-heeled land lovers has formed a vigilante permit enforcement group of sorts, staking out a priceless patch of property and making detailed observations about the development work that they say threatens the natural character of their neighborhood. In recent weeks, they've documented bulldozers at work on the land, taken water quality samples that they say demonstrate stream degradation and reported illegal fencing work to government agencies.

They're a busy bunch.

But to be fair, the property in question isn't priceless, economically speaking. Straddling the border between Davidson and Williamson counties, the 300-acre tract is split into two similarly sized pieces. The Davidson County parcel sold in July for $900,000, purchased by a developer named Mickey Mitchell. His company, CBM Enterprises, developed plans to put a Wal-Mart on the property and showed them to Metro Council member Charlie Tygard. Neighbors got wind, and an opposition movement was born.

Trouble is, there's nothing to oppose—at least not yet. The land is still zoned agricultural. CBM claims the work they're doing on the property is to ready it for farming and hunting, not for paving and shopping. And Metro's water quality experts, who say they're keeping a close eye on the property, haven't seen any evidence of illegality to date. They've documented minor grading and replacement of an old culvert, as well as the restoration of an old road that connects to Highway 96. "They're doing exactly what they're allowed to do under agricultural regulations," says a Metro spokesperson. Of course, as a Williamson County stormwater expert puts it, there's a lot of leeway when someone invokes "the old agricultural exemption."

Local residents, then, are skeptical. "They obviously are up there doing something," says Nancy Schwartz, chair of a nearby homeowners' association. "We don't know what they're doing; that's the problem." She says the abundantly resourced opposition group, which calls itself the Linton South Harpeth Association, has documented water pollution, taken aerial and ground photos and even engaged in surveillance activities. Next, they plan to hire an attorney.

Folks out there are even spotting black helicopters—only they're with the good guys this time. As the story goes, some associates of a wealthy landowner—himself an opponent of the prospective Wal-Mart—were touring his property by air. When workers on the CBM property spotted the approaching helicopter, they reportedly jumped off their bulldozers and got out of sight. Maybe they thought it was a terrorist invasion.

CBM development manager David Lowry, reached Tuesday, says "There's nothing going on" on the property. "We have plans to plant crops," he says. Moreover, Lowry says he's never spoken to Wal-Mart about building a store at that location, and neither has anyone else at CBM. Seems kind of strange, considering CBM officials have held two meetings with Tygard, the council member, asking what the process would be for putting a Wal-Mart there. The second time, they even brought diagrams.

Opponents have been meeting too. In late July, about 200 community members gathered at the South Harpeth Civic Club for an information session. Organizers deemed the crowded event a huge success. Meanwhile, the community newspaper's pages have of late been filled with vitriolic letters, as angry residents accuse their council member of bad faith dealing while he accuses them of rumor-mongering and premature rabble-rousing. There's no love being lost in southwest Davidson County.

But a lot of pristine forested land will be irretrievably lost if Wal-Mart's corporate footprint lands in that rare patch of remaining Middle Tennessee greenspace. Those who live near it, and their prominent lawyers, fear that CBM will forge a backroom agreement to get a zoning change, the Metro Council will approve it out of "councilmanic courtesy" if Tygard supports it, and then the big box retailer will quickly sign a deal to pave over trees and streams in the name of cheap merchandise.

As Wal-Mart battles lawsuits around the country—and city councils that are increasingly putting restrictions on large-scale retail—who knows what the Metro Council will do if a zoning change comes before them? Maybe they'll debate health insurance benefits for themselves as Wal-Mart hires dozens of "associates" who will never receive coverage. After the recent fiascoes surrounding the development of a Super Target store in Brentwood—including an attempted recall of Metro Council member Parker Toler—you'd think the council would get hip to the political risks involved. (Tygard sure is; he describes his situation as "a council member's worst nightmare.")

Not long ago, as NPR listeners may have noticed, Wal-Mart launched a national public relations campaign to clean up its tarnished image. Meanwhile, towns in Kansas, Colorado and Illinois have beat the big box in recent months, not to mention folks in Washington, D.C., and the low-income residents of Inglewood, Calif. If plans for a Wal-Mart surface in South Harpeth, can the area's rich and well-organized residents stop the giant retailer? Or will the big box win again?


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