Conservationists Fight To Keep Out More Homes In Bellevue's 'Last Forested Frontier'

Jul 22, 2015

The future plan for 200 acres of wild land in West Nashville will be decided Thursday afternoon. The Metro Planning Commission hearing may determine whether current development plans — 864 housing units — are appropriate for the Bellevue property.

But conservationists want to protect this parcel, which is located on the corner of Highway 70 and Old Hickory Boulevard. The land contains 300-year-old trees, streams, undulating hills, sharp slopes and caves filled with sensitive species, they say. 

The piece of land also occupies an important place in a chain of properties that environmentalists have been working for years to conserve as an “ecological corridor,” that includes several of the city’s parks along with the West Meade Waterfall and Belle Forest Cave, which have both been preserved within the past year.

This particular parcel is still undeveloped, but there have been developments nearby.
Credit Tony Gonzales / WPLN

But since 1995, the 271-acre tract has been classified as a PUD, a special type of district allowing for development on mixed-land types. An Arizona-based construction company, Nashville Highlands LLC, owns the property and has already developed 69 of these acres with 198 housing units and a water tower. We were unable to reach them for comment. 

At a meeting last week that brought together Tennessee conservation groups, conservation biologist Noah Charney said the PUD land is too steep and prone to flooding for the anticipated housing units.  

“We should be putting developments in places that make sense. We’re not out fighting every development; we’re fighting this one because we just shouldn’t be putting developments on steep slopes," he says. "The reason this hasn’t been developed in the past 400 years is because no previous generations thought it made sense to develop 50 percent grade slopes. The basic laws of physics and geology haven’t changed, and it's still not a good idea."

The meeting’s goal was to collaborate on ideas for how to best protect this property. The location at Radnor Lake was fitting. Community members raised enough money 40 years ago to purchase the 743 acres encompassing the lake, and it became Tennessee’s first official natural area. The park now includes more than 1,400 acres.

Charney is the chairman of Radnor2River, a movement dedicated to protecting the corridor of green space arcing eight miles around Nashville’s western border, from Radnor Lake north to the Warner Parks, and still further north to Belle's Bend Park on the Cumberland. The Nashville Highlands property is in the middle.

In fact, the land is flanked by a West Meade waterfall and Belle Forest Cave. Charney says this whole pocket is extremely important for the establishment of a contiguous corridor.

"The biggest threat is Nashville Highlands right now because it is this critical link. Really south of the Cumberland River, it's the only quiet stream value that you can walk back into, " Charney says. "It's way bigger than anything in Warner Parks. It's sort of this last forested frontier that we just have to protect as a city.”

Leaders of the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation led journalists on a tour of the forest they want to preserve that is directly next to a 200-acre property that could be developed for housing.
Credit Tony Gonzales / WPLN

One way to protect properties is with a 'conservation easement.' The owner of the property can donate the development rights of their land to an environmental nonprofit, and even receive a federal tax break in return.

But a tax break doesn't really provide the same financial return land developed with homes would. This is where preservation becomes a battle. 

Charney says the development could potentially violate the Tennessee Cave Act, the EPA’s Clean Water Act and Nashville Metro Codes 17.28.010, which set standards for developing on hillsides. He says that he hopes the city will take these into account when deciding what to do with the Nashville Heights property.

The Planning Commission staff has already recommended that the PUD status be inactivated. Rather, the property should be re-designated as an SP, which allows the property to make more exceptions to standard building codes in order to preserve the land.

Re-zoning as an SP could allow for the property to both be developed and remain environmentally-friendly enough to still be part of an ecological passageway that hugs west Nashville. Charney cites other cities that already have well-established green corridors, such as Boston's Emerald Necklace or San Francisco's East Bay Regional Park system. 

“The big idea is to make Nashville a well-planned city from an ecological perspective — because when you look at other cities where there are good park systems, they’re connected park systems," he says.

At Thursday’s hearing, former Nashville mayor, Bill Purcell, will be representing Radnor2River as the organization's lawyer.