Bureau Chief’s note: This is the second of a three-part series about efforts to build a new industrial park in Sumner County, possibly with taxpayer money. You can read Part One here.
The scuttlebutt in Sumner County says developers are bucking the will of the people to build a taxpayer-funded industrial park.
As reported, County Executive Anthony Holt tried to use taxpayer money to buy land north of Gallatin near Dobbins Pike.
Landowners aren’t happy.
People who own land adjacent to those properties say an industrial park would disrupt their lives.
As a result, Holt’s efforts to fund this park — with county money, at least — were unsuccessful, and county officials turned down at least $20 million in state grants.
But, according to rumors, developers with influence want to take advantage of state taxpayers and revive the project. Developers are talking sweet to the property owners, away from the spotlight.
County Commissioner Moe Taylor says he’s heard the tittle-tattle.
“Something must be going on, or else this stuff wouldn’t keep coming up,” Taylor said.
Holt, in a conversation with Tennessee Watchdog, dismissed the chatter.
“People want to look for conspiracies,” he said.
But evidence suggests this is more than gossip.
According to a February story in the Tennessean, members of the county’s Industrial Development Board, including a developer named Danny Hale, want this park built.
Board members are tasked with recruiting new industries to the county, and they don’t want another location. Board members say it can happen but that property owners must first consent to rezoning their land from agricultural to industrial.
“Because it got shot down at the county level, developers and members of the Industrial Development Board have picked it up, and they’re pushing hard to get this rezoned,” said Brad Wear, who has property adjacent to the proposed park.
Wear and his neighbors say the park could lower their property values and even force them to leave their homes.
One developer, Bruce Rainey — who Wear describes as “the most powerful man in the county” — is talking to landowners with property at the site of the proposed park.
Rainey, who serves on the county’s Zoning Appeals Board, would not say why.
According to another Tennessean story, a lot of county residents say Rainey’s service on that board is a conflict of interest, given what he does for a living.
Hale, meanwhile, has a reported history of legal problems related to his business.
Holt handpicked both men to serve on these boards, several county commissioners said. Those county commissioners said they must approve Holt’s recommendations — but they can’t recall rejecting any of them.
And the landowner with the biggest piece of property to sell, Tina Earp, reportedly has a sketchy past of her own.
Wear says the developers are talking to about five landowners, including Earp, who lives in Arizona.
Wear says Earp owns 340 acres; Holt says it’s 400.
“She desperately wants to sell the land and has previously done inappropriate things to make it happen,” Wear said.
According to Nashville news affiliate WSMV, former Gallatin City Council member Dale Bennett had to resign his position in 2011 after accepting money from Earp for consulting services while serving as an elected official.
At the time, the station reported Earp had several projects in front of the Gallatin Planning Commission for rezoning.
Earp did not return repeated requests for comment.
Tennessee Watchdog’s attempts to talk to other landowners who own property at the park’s proposed site also were unsuccessful.
Developers and property owners
County Commissioner Larry Hinton said he doubts real estate developers are working discreetly to turn that land into an industrial park. Steve Graves, another commissioner, said he’s heard nothing about the matter.
But according to the Tennessean, members of the Industrial Development Board love the idea of getting an industrial park at the site. The paper quoted Hale as suggesting “changing the land use plan of the property to industrial to encourage private development.”
Holt says in the story property owners initiate that.
Hale “suggested making the property a Tax Increment Financing district to encourage private development.”
According to the state government’s official website, TIF is a tool government uses to redevelop blighted areas. Specific improvements are planned, and bonds pay for those planned improvements, which supposedly encourage private development, raise property values and bring in more money for government officials.
“Those landowners would be (more) encouraged to wait for an industrial sale than they would be to try to develop under the agricultural zoning now,” Hale told the Tennessean.
Hale told Tennessee Watchdog he has no financial interests in this park and owns no land at the site of the proposed park.
According to the Nashville Post, in 2011 and 2012 Hale had problems related to alleged financial irregularities with his business. The site alleged Hale took money he wasn’t entitled to and used it for his own benefit.
Rainey, another developer, said it’s “not in his clients’ best interests to disclose who I’m talking to or what I’m talking to them about.”
“I won’t say whether I approached them or they approached me. We are having discussions. We have not made a formal submittal to any governmental entity at this point.”
Rainey said he doesn’t own land inside the proposed space.
He also refused to say whether he would seek TIF financing or any industrial development bonds if his intent were to rezone those properties to industrial.
‘A very behind-the-scenes, corrupt kind of thing’
Wear, who says he’s talked with the landowners, reports Rainey has promised several things.
“They are telling landowners they get to keep greenbelt exemptions as long as they keep farming — that they have nothing to lose by agreeing to the rezoning,” Wear said, adding he knows how this will play out.
“They will eventually come up with money to do a feasibility study. Then they will come back and say we need to turn this into a TIF and do government financing.”
Wear says Rainey meeting with the landowners is a conflict of interest. Holt says that’s not the case, and it’s up to the Planning Commission — an entity separate from anything Rainey or Hale does — to rezone those properties.
County Attorney Leah Dennen said Rainey has no conflict of interest.
“The Zoning Appeals Board deals with issues that exist in the present zoning you have. It has nothing to do with zoning changes.”
Gaylea McDougal, who also owns property adjacent to the proposed park, said things about this don’t look right.
“There was a process that played out in the government, and we were told this thing was dead in the water,” McDougal said.
“Now it’s been tossed over to the private sector in a very behind-the-scenes, corrupt kind of thing.”
Audrey Hesson, a neighbor of Wear and McDougal, said Earp’s involvement should put people on guard.
“When something like this is going on and you are trying to determine motive your first question is why, when you have someone who has proven to be unethical in the past,” Hesson said.
“She wants this property developed no matter to what end. It makes you question the people involved. What do they gain, and why are they not being transparent?”
Taylor, speaking as a county commissioner, refused to predict what members of the Planning Commission would do if and when they review the matter.
“It’ll be a close vote — too close to call,” Taylor said.
Part three of this series, scheduled for publication later this week, will examine what local government officials get out of this industrial park and why want it so badly.
Contact Christopher Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org
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