For those of you who aren't planning and zoning geeks, rezoning requests are supposed to be approved or disapproved based on their compatibility with the area's land use plan. As we noted in the last post, the May Town developers and property owners are seeking both a change in the land use policy and a rezoning. If the Planning Commission follows its normal protocol, the re-zoning will be disapproved if the land use policy amendment is disapproved. Similarly, the re-zoning will be approved if the land use policy amendment is approved.
If the Planning Commission approves the land use policy amendment, it will be the most radical plan amendment ever adopted. The plan amendment will change the use of much of the land from the least intense to the most intense. The adoption of the proposed plan amendment will also signal a disturbing departure from community driven, consensus based planning in favor of a balkanization of policy along property lines.
The rezoning request is the reason for the land use policy change and staff has issued a 48 page report. Their argument in favor of the development rests on two points; it is good for economic development and the sacrifice of some land is worth it because we get to save other land.
Since economics are a personal interest of mine ('though I can recall a few professors who would beg to differ) we shall start there.
Economic Development -
Staff thinks May Town Center will be great for economic development because it won't hurt downtown and it will make it easier to steal business relocation from other counties. They reach this conclusion by relying on CBER's recent economic report and citing a number of sources including the Nashville City Paper and Tennessean articles. (I am a huge fan of both papers and read them everyday, but they are designed for general readership and normally would not be relied on for economic analysis. Staff's use of this anecdotal evidence is like relying on People magazine for evaluating an investment in Walt Disney Co or MGM.)
The CBER report is a thorough and professional document that has one very significant limitation. The authors of the report caution the reader:
However, this report is not a feasibility study for MTC; rather we analyze the effects of MTC on Davidson County based on the assumption that the development over time will approximate current plans.
Yet, this extraordinary caveat gets no mention in the staff report. Instead they assure us of significant economic impact as if it were a inevitable.
Most startling to me is the perpetuation of a myth that the development of land (by anyone other than the government) will yield economic and business activity. The basis for this assumption is that if only we had large tracts of developable land, we would have businesses massing at county line ready to move in the moment we turn on the faux French Provincial fountains.
If all is takes is the availability of large tracts of suburban land necessary to accommodate the big footprint of your typical corporate campus, then we should see headquarters locations spreading like kudzu in Robertson, Wilson, Dickson and Cheatham Counties, right?. But, we don't do we? No, the most desirable tenants seem to gravitate to Williamson County.
There is no question that we lose business to Williamson County. But can really pin all of that on the absence of available land in Davidson Co? It isn't Williamson Co's school system? It isn't the solid upper middle class demographic that draws employers and retailers? It isn't the large single family housing stock largely controlled by HOA restrictions? It isn't the properly funded and maintained park system? It isn't a well managed government and respected elected officials? It's not the existence of transportation and utility infrastructure?
Staff's blind acceptance of a flimsy economic theory may have grave consequences to the taxpayers of Davidson County. All the infrastructure must be built first - the roads, water and sewer, bridges, power grid - and it has to be built on a scale necessary to accommodate much, if not all, of the development. If, after constructing this infrastructure, the developer discovers that no one wants to live, shop or work in May Town, there will be ongoing maintenance expense with no increase in revenue from tax and rate payers. Put another way, Metro, NES and Metro Water Services will still have to care for the additional infrastructure regardless of whether May Town Center yields new customers. If no one moves to May Town, existing customers and taxpayers will have to pick up the slack.
Staff then goes on to discuss why other locations may not be as appropriate for large scale suburban corporate campuses. They set out all the pros and cons but interestingly fail to mention the similar attributes for May Town Center. For example, the East Bank is limited because of brownfields which create costs associated with mitigation. May Town sits on a number of archaeological sites and will have intense environmental review for bridge construction. The McCrory Creek area was excused because it is in the flight path for an airport. So is May Town. The absence of "executive" housing was cited as a limitation on several locations. There is no mention of where that executive housing will be for May Town but I am going to take a guess that it will be in West Meade, Hillwood, Green Hills, Richland/Central, Whitland and Belle Meade. None of which are terrible accessible without construction of bridge #3. After reading this section, anyone with critical facilities will conclude that the May Town site has very little to offer over the other locations except size.
Land Conservation - By focusing land use to 600 of the 1500 acres, the May Town plan does preserve about 900 acres to greater and less degrees. About 300 acres of this land will be spread throughout the development in the form of civic spaces, local parks, office campus green space-conservation in only the strictest sense of the word. It will not replicate or preserve the character of the area and won't be terribly different from the open space that might normally be required for a major development.
About 400 acres in the floodway and floodplain of the Cumberland River will be set aside. Nashville prohibits development in the floodway already and limits floodplain development to 50% so this is not as big a sacrifice as you might think. But, I give everyone credit for the 50% of floodplain that might otherwise see bulldozers.
Falling between these two extremes is the Natural Conservation area of 200 acres that will accommodate up to 6 "estate" homes. Without permanent easements, this area will be subdivided and intensified over time if the infrastructure is built and the May Town project successful.
One of the conditions of the rezoning is the initiation of two programs meant to preserve the rural character of other people's land. These programs will serve to implement that land use policy I have already noted is unfair in the way it is designed to keep some folks farming while other folks get to develop their land. So, if May Town is successful or expected to be successful, then it is going to be pretty difficult to talk a property owner into giving up their right to develop in a similar fashion "Hi, Mr Jones, you can probably get $100,000 a year forever for a Mapco ground lease on your land there on Old Hickory Blvd but wouldn't you rather $10,000 right now for an easement so we can make sure you never have a Mapco?" I don't know who is going to ask that question but I would really like to be there when it happens. If May Town is not successful then there isn't much reason for Mr. Jones to give up his rights and he'll probably just sit tight and wait and see.
All told the staff report presents little in the way of a solid defense of May Town in terms of sound planning that is supported by community consensus. I think we all know and understand that there is a property owner that over-paid for land for which he had limited legal use. I understand and appreciated the difficult position in which he finds himself but I cannot see how his plight leads us to the conclusion that it May Town Center.
As always, don't hesitate to call or write if you have questions.