Mt. Juliet's latest step toward approving a new development next to an existing neighborhood has reignited questions about whether the city prioritizes growth over citizen concern.
City commissioners approved the first of two readings for a development plan proposing 561 new homes be built on Bradshaw Farms, which sits next to the established Jackson Hills neighborhood. It would cover 195 acres on the eastern side of Golden Bear Gateway and Mt. Juliet High School, and it would connect to Jackson Hills directly.
Signature Homes, the developer of Jackson Hills, initially proposed to expand Jackson Hills onto this same land for 400 more homes according to city staff, but Signature never acted on that proposal. Now, Goodall Homes affiliate Clayton Properties proposes the new plan for the same land, gaining approval from the Planning Commission on Nov. 21.
The City Commission approved the plan on the first reading on Nov. 25, and a second reading will see the final vote on Jan. 13. The project hasn't made this much progress without significant backlash from residents, though. In fact, the plan drew more than an hour's worth of comments each at both the planning and city commission meetings.
Concerns were similar to those commonly voiced at such meetings throughout the year, complaining that the city is overcrowded already and shouldn't still be allowed to grow. Specific problems cited are vehicular traffic congestion and a lack of pedestrian safety. Both concerns compound in the context of children making it safely to and from school.
At the City Commission meeting, the first of these comments came from Woodland Place resident Josh Randall, whose subdivision would be impacted just like Jackson Hills and Tuscan Gardens.
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Randall painted the picture of the much less bustling Mt. Juliet to which he originally moved -- a narrower Mt. Juliet Road, a shorter Golden Bear Gateway and no Jackson Hills. These and other developments each added vehicular traffic to Woodridge Place according to Randall, and each time, the city prioritized something else over sidewalks for Woodridge.
"While I'm excited at the potential for new neighbors that can discover and enjoy our wonderful community," Randall told the commission, "I cannot support irresponsible growth."
Commissioner Ray Justice credited Randall's comment with changing his mind about the sidewalk need on Woodridge Place, a small but significant thoroughfare that connects Mt. Juliet Road to Golden Bear Parkway. He also credited Giles with galvanizing people from his district to these meetings to request sidewalks.
Randall said, "Of primary concern to me for Bradshaw Farms that it must only be considered if the sidewalk on Woodridge is to be completed prior to the first house being sold."
Like Randall, the vast majority of commenters wanted sidewalks but advocated the development plan be rejected.
The requested sidewalks were unanimously approved in one of several amendments to the plan, but so was the plan, pending the final vote in January. The sentiment, however, among citizens now suggests they don't feel they can influence their elected representatives.
In the case of the Devonshire Townhomes that were proposed in June for lots adjacent to Hickory Hills and Willoughby Station back in June, former Planning Commissioner Kelly Morgan explained to a throng of passionate residents that city planners could do very little to curtail growth even if they were so inclined.
Legally, if a parcel of land is zoned for development, the Planning Commission cannot stop developers unless their plan violates city code. Developers "keep building homes," Morgan said then. "Why? Because you keep buying them."
Plans approved by that commission, however, are then submitted to the City Commission, whose authority, as a body that includes the mayor, is much more far reaching.
Mt. Juliet resident Grace King drew nearly 100 comments and almost as many likes on Facebook for a post in which she ranted about the new Bradshaw Farms development proposal.
"Where the heck are these 561 (x's 2.5 kids each) homes supposed to send their kids to school??" King posted. "How are the roads supposed to accommodate those 561 (x's 3 cars each) additional vehicles?"
Density concerns are commonplace in the context of new developments in Mt. Juliet today, but the developer argued at the City Ccommission meeting that other kinds of developments would have been worse.
"A lot of conversations when discussing density and the challenges it exists with are based on a lot count," said Caleb Thorne, vice president at Ragan-Smith & Associates, who represented the development at the City Commission meeting, "so our lot count is 561 proposed lots, which is equal to or less than the 2.9 units per acre," which is the maximal amount to be designated as medium density.
Thorne added that 45 percent of these units are for retirement-age residents and that, across the country, they represent a demographic that statistically bears among the least impact of any demographic on infrastructure. He argued that the plan, therefore, adds much less to density than a single-family development would.