The Chatter Class: Is there middle ground between developers and neighborhoods?

Monday, June 23, 2008 at 2:59am
Developer Tony Giarratana (foreground, right) was portrayed as the villain at a public hearing for the Bells Bend town center project. Matthew Williams/File/The City Paper

Neighborhood and slow growth advocates have painted real estate developers as evildoers for years.

They say those dastardly developers want to cut corners and change established zoning rules to make more money. As the view goes, developers want nothing more than to build what they want when they want, trampling neighborhoods and twisting government arms along the way.

But at what point should developers be treated as customers of the city and taxpaying citizens like anyone else? And why should war erupt around nearly every proposed major project?

If those who want to fight developers at every turn aren’t careful, they could end up doing a lot more harm than good, the development community warns.

That’s not an idle threat. Developers prefer to do their thing where it’s easier and friendlier to make a decent profit. That means the tax dollars developments generate will go elsewhere.

It’s our own fault

Nashville voters painted themselves into a corner when they voted to require a referendum on increasing property taxes. This can’t be pointed out enough.

The tax base has to grow to match increasing costs of services. Everyone wants better schools as well as better police and fire protection. We like our parks, sidewalks and good garbage collection.

This constitutes a constant struggle and balancing act. Just look at the situation with public schools now and the debate of the Metro budget in general.

Of course, there’s the viewpoint that the city should cut wasteful spending, but ask those who share that view to point to what they would cut first and suddenly there are no specifics. Even if they could point to an area, what is wasteful to one may be a necessity to another.

Deals for sports teams and major companies draw much criticism in certain circles. However, no one can say with absolute certainty that those deals are harmful, just as it can’t be absolutely proven they benefit the city either.

Numbers can be manipulated to show almost anything. Seemingly the only way of gauging benefit or harm is to imagine that none of it ever was done.

For example, what would Nashville look like if HCA weren’t here? Or the Titans or Predators?

Elected officials now must look at other ways to build the tax base. That means encouraging rejuvenation of property to increase value, which increases property taxes. Or, the neighborhood groups can seize the initiative and freely state that they are willing to fight for a property tax increase to keep developers at bay.

With risk comes rewards

Although we live in a capitalistic society where risk is rewarded, neighborhood advocates seem to think developers should make little to no money.

Developers typically aren’t salaried employees. They are speculators who risk a good bit of their own money and other investors’ money in the hopes that it all pays off in the end.

There are plenty who have failed, ending up in foreclosure or bankruptcy. And, there are plenty who have gone bust but come back strong.

[After surviving a bust, there are developers who learned not to live ‘high on the hog’ in good times. They have no personal debt, owning their homes and cars outright. Dave Ramsey would be proud.]

Sure, developers hire lobbyists and public relations people to sway people on projects. But would they still hire a horde if the process didn’t erupt into a near street brawl every time a project is proposed?

That’s not to say that any and every project should be built. About the only people who like a ‘big box’ retail center with a huge swath of asphalt in front are the folks who simply don’t care. But at some point, there should be a balanced, reasonable discussion of a project, instead of a fight. Not all developers are unwilling to listen and work with neighborhood folks before proposing a project.

Frankly, people that complain about developers always seeking and receiving changes to rules tend to forget that many average homeowners and small property owners seek the same changes. A $100 million project can be on the same Metro Board of Zoning Appeals agenda as the homeowner wanting a height variance to build a garage.

The BZA meeting agenda last Thursday, for example, included requests by Sonic, three churches, a homeowner and an organization seeking to convert a nursing home into apartments for deaf adults.

Neighborhood people help craft policy and subsequent rules. But are they meant to be hard and fast rules or guidelines with common sense applied?

Balancing the desires of both

A local attorney made an interesting point recently about the conflict of interest issue that arose with Jim McLean, a developer and chairman of the Metro Planning Commission, in handling of staffer David Kleinfelter.

If neighborhood advocates get one of their own in Kleinfelter, then there’s a conflict of interest there, he said. He asked why don’t developers get an advocate in the planning department?

His point is that the planning department shouldn’t advocate one way or the other. Shouldn’t it be an impartial arbiter that balances the desires of neighborhoods and the projects developers propose?

Impartiality and fairness may never be possible, however. With the neighborhood advocates, you are either with them or against them. Middle ground doesn’t seem to exist.

The Chatter Class appears Mondays in The City Paper. Comments may be sent to

Filed under: City Business
By: JohnBirch on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Ok, Richard this article is not just incomprehensible it is also boring. You are starting to sound like developer's version of John Summers. He thought all developers were bad because they want to make money and you think all neighborhood groups are bad because they want to preserve their quality of life.

By: BigPapa on 12/31/69 at 6:00

"He asked why don’t developers get an advocate in the planning department?"Now THAT is laughable.. We all know that every council person is and government official is open to every and all developers that trot down the path. They are the girl that never says no.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 6:00

'they say those dastardly developers want to cut corners and change established zoning rules to make more money'. And? Of course they want to do that, that's why balance IS needed. What Lawson is proposing isn't balance, it's tipping the scales even further in the developer's favor. He is also perpetuating the myth that 'growth' pays for itself. In fact, housing in any form costs the taxpayers, especially if it is sprawling out to the edges of the county. Commercial retail development pays sales taxes on dollars we spend. And those large job producing deals such as the Titans, Predators and Dell- all of which I support- came at a cost in tax subsidies. This is why developer advocates are always in favor of property tax increases, as Lawson implicity is doing here - development requires them.When neighborhood advocates ask for infrastructure improvements and other concessions from developers they aren't 'harassing'. They are ensuring that the negative impact on surrounding homes and quality of life is minimized.

By: WrdBrn on 12/31/69 at 6:00

The Planning Commission is not only the one "who can’t say no"; it is also guilty of "I must have gotten really drunk last night - I don't remember a thing!"I have been to their soirees of propaganda pushing for the poor underpaid developers. It comes with out coffee, or a warm-up act. They are so boring that only the truly brave of heart can stay awake until the actually information starts leaking through.Then it happens, a lion heart gathers up words and courage and asks a question - or writes one down on a note card and the moderator finally reads it. Typical questions are: How many police are we going to need, How many children are going to pack our already crowded schools, After the project is done - who cares for the water and sewer systems, the roads; After you leave just how much is traffic increase is their going to be.... All reasonable questions from citizens that want to be reasonable. The answer is always the same from that painted lady the Planning Commissions front man: We do not know, that is not part of our function. Therein is the Gordian knot. Thank the God that put the stars in the night sky that the voice of someone who actually lives in a neighborhood and understands its intricacy to the health of a city - David Kleinfelter - is there.

By: Jeremiah_29-7 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

What a mis-leading headline, to talk about "middle ground" when the article is simply about lecturing neighborhoods that they shouldn't oppose these friendly developers that want to help us all by increasing the tax base. It is WAY over the top to suggest that neighborhood representatives need to lobby FOR a tax increase. That is the simplistic "either-or" thinking that developers always use. "If you don't vote FOR this development, I'll put in low-income duplexes." And of course, that statement plays to the worst in people, ignoring a real need for housing and trying to arouse fear.Richard Lawson, I am hoping that you are simply uninformed, and not as deceptive as this article sounds. You are playing by the developers' "playbook." There should be "middle ground" found, but it is NOT done by removing someone from Metro Planning who wants to see the rules followed. The developers LOVE to see THEIR rules followed.

By: RIchardLawson on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I always enjoy reading the comments. It has become clear that one side is incapable of seeing or understanding a different point of view. Additionally, the folks here either didn't read it all the way through or just absolutely missed the points.

By: JohnBirch on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Richard, please consider writing your articles more C-L-E-A-R-L-Y. I see both sides, hence the John Summers reference who I suppose is so far on the other side of you he could be in China. I did read the whole thing. I just don't understand why you continue to write about an issue that is relevant or interesting to about 5 of 6 (not counting the Mayor's office) people in your readership.

By: RIchardLawson on 12/31/69 at 6:00

First, Birch, not sure how much more elementary I need to make it. Secondly, it is relevant to everyone because everyone who owns property pays taxes, commercial and residential. When voters chose to require a referendum on raising property taxes, that essentially put the county into the situation of relying more and more on a sales tax economy as well as new development to generate additional property taxes.

By: WrdBrn on 12/31/69 at 6:00

JohnBirch - I am SURE you would not equate the number of readers that Mr Lawson - or any other CP writer - has to the number of online responders that "log in and voice thier opinion."