Developers, 'Friends of Warner Parks' look to strike accord

Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 9:05pm

On a recent December afternoon, Warner Bass drove his truck up wooded hills off Highway 100, taking a reporter on a tour through a new addition to Warner Parks, long one of Nashville’s most beloved natural areas.

The section Bass navigated –– sandwiched between Highways 70 and 100, across the street and railroad tracks from Edwin and Percy Warner parks –– includes a vast old-growth forest, noted for its soaring, two-century-old trees and diverse vegetation. There’s a small stream, a pond and a long-abandoned farmhouse. In the distance are wild turkey and deer.

But this Bellevue-area land wasn’t always set aside for preservation. Its protection took private and public dollars, and the willingness of property owners to sell.

Over the past seven years, the nonprofit organization Friends of Warner Parks, which grandson of Edwin Warner and prominent Nashville attorney Bass helped lead, purchased some 450 acres of land appraised at $20 million to add to the Warner Parks system. More than $14 million in private and public funds went toward the endeavor, including a $1.6 million Metro government donation. The effort culminated in 2010 when Friends of Warner Parks finalized the discounted purchase of H.G. Hill Realty Co. land, the largest of the private tracts that includes the old-growth forest.

“We never set out with the idea in mind of buying all this property,” Bass said, describing the piece-by-piece series of acquisitions. “It sort of came along.”

Moving forward, the plan is for nature trails to meander throughout the recently purchased acreage, and to build an underground tunnel below Highway 100 to unite this new parkland with existing Warner Parks.

In the meantime, however, Bass and other parks enthusiasts fear a looming residential development could threaten the park’s sanctity.

Colonial Properties Trust, a Birmingham, Ala.-based development group with an existing apartment complex at Bellevue Road and Old Hickory Boulevard near Highway 100, is planning to build Phase 2 of its Colonial Grand at Bellevue apartments. The construction would place three-story suburban-style apartment units right next to the open space Friends of Warner Parks recently purchased.

“We think it will lessen the experience,” Bass said. “The wonderful thing about the Warner Parks is you can get out here and feel like you’re removed. Anything that takes away from that experience, I think, takes away what people come to the parks for.”

Originally tabbed as a 350-unit apartment project, developers are now eyeing 256 apartments. The project relies on a 1984-era “planned unit development,” or PUD, designed as the blueprint outlining the zoning conditions for the development.

But parks supporters say attitudes toward development and preservation have changed since the PUD’s creation, underscored by the movement to expand Warner Parks. Moreover, they point to a soon-to-be adopted Bellevue Community Plan, which has an entire chapter devoted to the importance of open space. In short, they believe the PUD should effectively be thrown out.

“Circumstances have changed very dramatically since [1984] in a number of ways,” Bass said. “One of which is, the city now owns this property that adjoins this piece.

“We’re not foolish enough to think that property can’t be developed,” he said. “They have the right to develop the property. It would be wonderful if they decided they weren’t going to, but that’s completely unrealistic. We just think they have an obligation to do it under the circumstances that exist today, and not those that existed [more than] 25 years ago.”

The issue goes before the Metro Planning Commission on Jan. 12 when commissioners will decide whether the PUD is active or inactive, answering whether those zoning regulations are still valid today. The planning department’s staff has recommended that the PUD be considered active. The nine-member commission deferred the matter at its December meeting.

Tom White, Colonial’s attorney and lobbyist, called Friends of Warner Parks “a perfectly reasonable group.” He also pointed to his 
client’s undeniable leverage.

“When the Friends of Warner Park bought that property next door, they knew that at the time, my client had a right to build up to 350 apartments next door,” White said. “They knew that. So, what we’re trying to do is see what things can be done to make sure the apartments are compatible with the parks.”

Ensuring the apartments are “compatible,” and striking some accord, will be the purpose of a private meeting this week between the two sides. If an agreement is met, a revamped site plan could follow.

White, pointing out that Colonial must build to all modern building standards, noted Colonial has already agreed to scale back the number of units. In addition, he said his client is trying to rearrange apartment building locations “to make them less offensive to any view from the park” and reduce some buildings to two stories. He added that developers plan to receive input from parks representatives on the preferred color of the buildings.

Some of these ideas seem to overlap with accommodations Bass says he and others seek: a less-dense apartment development, fewer units, shorter buildings, the protection of more trees, buffers and eliminating units proposed atop a hill that would be most visible. Another concern altogether, Bass said, is the placement of apartments on a steep incline, aided by retaining walls, which could be vulnerable during flooding.

Interpreting whether Colonial’s PUD is active is a task assigned to planning commission.

Park stakeholders have lined up advocating the PUD be deemed inactive. Among those include Metro Parks Director Tommy Lynch, who in a Dec. 7 letter to the planning commission cited the newly acquired land and new circumstances surrounding Warner Parks. In a separate letter, Audra Ladd, Middle Tennessee project manager of The Land Trust of Tennessee, wrote that an “evolution” in building design has initiated since 1984.

The planning commission will have to consider a 2007 Metro ordinance that provides a mechanism outlining how a PUD can be classified as inactive if no development has occurred within six years after its creation. The ordinance makes clear, however, the planning commission can consider a developer’s “aggregate actions” in readying a site.

White said Colonial has satisfied criteria that represent activity, including the construction of sewer lines and a retention pond. Within the last 12 months, he said, Colonial has spent more than $60,000 in engineering and other services.

But Councilwoman Emily Evans, who spoke at the planning commission’s December public hearing, said suddenly hiring engineers and architects after 27 years of inactivity isn’t sufficient in making the PUD applicable.

“I think you have to be making a consistent effort towards building up a project,” Evans said. “They’ve not done anything until fairly recently to move forward, and so it should be reviewed.”

But whether the PUD is a living document could be a moot issue if a compromise is reached. Some observers are optimistic the parties are nearing one.

“There’s definitely room for a compromise,” said Councilman Carter Todd, whose district includes the Colonial site, adding that Colonial has made some “very reasonable proposals” that Friends of Warner Parks have found agreeable. “I do think the two parties have reached common ground on some of the key issues.

“As a councilperson, I’ve seen some developers who are jerks,” Todd said, noting Colonial isn’t among them. “These folks are really trying to work with Friends of Warner Parks.”