GALLATIN, Tennessee – Against the pleas of numerous citizens who spoke publicly at the meeting, the Sumner County Board of Commissioners voted Monday to advance The Meadows 1,115 mixed-used housing development in north Gallatin and to spend $500,000 on the Comer Barn.
The backdrop for the meeting was a mandatory mask order extended to August 29 by County Mayor Anthony Holt and forced social distancing through benches where every other one was taped off and the remainder were marked for six-foot spacing.
Before the meeting started, it was already standing room only. Holt announced he would use law enforcement to ensure social distancing. Speaking to those who didn’t have a seat or were “not spaced,” Holt said, “I ask that you vacate the seat and I will ask the sheriff to clear the commission chambers.”
This, despite the fact that the county commissioners and other officials were not socially distanced and have no physical barriers between their desks.
Holt’s order forced nearly half of the citizen attendees to leave the commission chambers into the lobby area of the building.
After the meeting was called to order, the audio visual system went down rendering useless the monitor installed in the lobby after a January 2015 meeting where hundreds of citizens were literally shut out of those proceedings.
This caused the citizen attendees to huddle together in the door opening of the commission chambers in an attempt to see and hear Monday night’s proceedings. After about an hour and a half, County Clerk Bill Kemp came out to the lobby and got the audio portion working on the monitor.
On the Monday night agenda, two of the most controversial and hotly contested topics that the county commission has taken up in recent history, other than the two property tax increases of 37 percent combined in the past five years.
Of the 26 people who signed up to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting that went for nearly two hours at the beginning of the meeting, 20 were against either or both of the projects.
The Meadows project, which has a long and storied past, was before the county commission as an interlocal agreement with the City of Gallatin for annexation and provision of urban services due to the 386-acre property being non-contiguous to the existing city boundary.
The city, going against the wishes of the neighboring properties and others within Gallatin, approved the request for rezoning and annexation by property owner Tina Earp, who lives in Arizona.
While most members of the public who spoke to the commission were against the project for a variety of reasons, Gallatin Councilman Jimmy Overton came out to lobby for the commission’s passage of the interlocal agreement.
When the commission took up the matter, Commissioners Alan Driver, who is one of the two commissioners who represent that district, as well as Moe Taylor, Jeremy Mansfield and Terry Wright all made numerous points against passing the interlocal agreement, which, in effect, gives the go-ahead for the project.
Objections to the project from citizens and commissioners alike included the development not being in keeping with the surrounding area, safety and traffic concerns from the high volume of traffic on such rural roads, a railroad crossing that has not yet been approved, as well as school capacity that would likely result in yet another tax increase.
To say that the commission would just be approving an interlocal agreement on a technicality is “grossly disingenuous,” Mansfield said. “It is rubber stamping this massive development.”
Approving noncontiguous land for annexation is “spot zoning,” Mansfield continued, the classic definition for which is the process of singling out a small parcel of land for a use classification totally different from that of the surrounding area for the benefit of the owner of such property and to the detriment of other owners.
In the case of The Meadows, the beneficiary of the spot zoning is Arizona-based property owner Tina Earp. Meanwhile, the spot zoning and annexation is to the detriment of many of the neighboring property owners who spoke out at the meeting that night as well as previous meetings of the Gallatin City Council.
Moe Taylor pointed out that there is a zoning board of appeals process running in parallel to The Meadows 1,115-unit housing development that is for a 310-duplex development (620 units). He called it a scare tactic, that if the interlocal agreement wasn’t approved, the duplexes would be pursued.
By a 14-9 vote, The Meadows interlocal agreement for annexation from Sumner County to the City of Gallatin for the provision of urban services passed.
Voting for The Meadows were Commissioners Billy Geminden and Larry Hinton of District 2, Jerry Foster and Leslie Schell of District 4, Baker Ring and Danny Sullivan of District 5, Deanne Dewitt and Luke Tinsley of District 6, Gene Rhodes of District 7, Shellie Tucker of District 8, Chris Taylor of District 9, Paul Goode of District 10, Scott Langford of District 11 and Justin Nipper of District 12.
Voting Against The Meadows were Commissioners Moe Taylor and Terry Wright of District 1, Alan Driver of District 3, Loren Echols of District 7, Merrol Hyde of District 8, Jerry Becker of District 9, Caroline Krueger of District 10, Jeremy Mansfield of District 11 and Michael Guthrie of District 12.
The other major issue on the commission’s agenda, the Comer Barn project, involved the approval of $250,000 of county funding to match dollar for dollar a state grant of $250,000 that would be used for preliminary work on the barn.
The Comer Barn, which has its own complicated history as previously reported, at a sum of $10 was a gift from road builder and materials supplier Rogers Group.
The quitclaim deed with reverter, which was executed in 2016 by Holt on behalf of Sumner County and Rogers Group Vice President Rick Turner, obligated the county to renovate the Comer Barn “to a condition reasonably satisfactory” to Rogers Group within a period of five years. Otherwise, the property reverts back to Rogers Group.
Those who spoke in favor of the $500,000 expenditure for the Comer Barn included Jimmy Johnston, President and CEO of Sumner County’s taxpayer-funded economic and workforce development office and John Puryear of Puryear Farms and Landscaping, who sits on the organization’s board of directors along with Holt and Rogers Group’s VP Turner.
Commissioner for the 6th District Deanne Dewitt, who said she was wearing her party dress in hopes of having something to celebrate, made an emotional appeal for the $500,000 in funding for the barn.
In addition to using taxpayer funding, another often-cited issue with the Comer Barn is its potential use as an event center that would make it difficult for private event centers to compete against one that is taxpayer-funded.
Dewitt sought to resolve that issue by saying there is no interest in creating an event center. However, in the middle of that point, Dewitt also used the qualifying statement, “at this juncture.”
The $500,000 in combined state grant and county funding went on to be approved by a vote of 16-6-1 with Luke Tinsley of District 6, after making corrections to comments made by citizens and making a pitch for the funding, abstaining from the vote due to being involved with the Rogers Group over the past month through his professional work.
Voting for the Comer Barn taxpayer funding of $500,000 were Commissioners Billy Geminden and Larry Hinton of District 2, Jerry Foster and Leslie Schell of District 4, Baker Ring and Danny Sullivan of District 5, Deanne Dewitt of District 6, Loren Echols and Gene Rhodes of District 7, Shellie Tucker of District 8, Chris Taylor of District 9, Paul Goode and Caroline Krueger of District 10, Scott Langford of District 11, Michael Guthrie and Justin Nipper of District 12.
Voting against the Comer Barn taxpayer funding of $500,000 were Commissioners Moe Taylor and Terry Wright of District 1, Alan Driver of District 3, Merrol Hyde of District 8, Jerry Becker of District 9 and Jeremy Mansfield of District 11.
Before the issue of the Comer Barn funding was taken up, an ad hoc committee was set up by Chairman Scott Langford at the request of Dewitt, who had gathered input from those who wish to serve. Langford appointed Dewitt as the chair along with commissioners Hinton, Rhodes, Tinsley, as well as Sumner County Tourism Executive Director Barry Young, Gallatin Councilman Shawn Fennell and Hendersonville Alderman Jonathan Hayes.
The full agenda for the meeting, including supporting documents for both projects, can be viewed here.
The video of the entire Sumner County Board of Commissioners meeting of August 17 can be viewed here.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.