Bowie Nature Park in Fairview, Tenn. will be affected by stormwater runoff from a proposed 166-house development. (Photo: BowiePark.org)
For months, residents of Fairview showed up to local government meetings, armed with photographs of flooded basements and overflowing culverts.
“We cannot sustain any more water, not a single drop,” Diane Miller told the Fairview Board of Commissioners in April of last year as board members weighed whether to approve an 180-home subdivision – one of the largest developments ever planned for the Williamson County community of under 10,000 people.
Like her neighbors in subdivisions downhill from the planned development, Miller’s home has repeatedly flooded as rainfall in Middle Tennessee has hit record — or near record — levels each year since 2018. Residents who spoke to the board said they feared the new development, on what is known as the Groves property, would bring even more stormwater to already flood-prone neighborhoods.
Despite sustained opposition, the Fairview Board of Commissioners in May voted 4-1 in favor of the project. It is expected to bring high-dollar homes to a small town that is yet to experience the same levels of affluence as the rest of Williamson County. With houses priced between the mid $500,000-$600,000, the development is expected to generate an estimated $200,000 in tax revenue for Fairview each year.
The vote in favor of developing the Groves property, however, occurred without a review of stormwater calculations that would show the flow of potential floodwaters from the site, as required by Fairview’s own city ordinances. And it occurred with an apparent misunderstanding of the role that municipal governments play in stormwater mitigation efforts versus state regulators.
A Williamson County judge’s ruling late last month has now put a temporary halt to the plans.
“This is exactly the development you’re seeing at record pace across the region,” said Jason Holleman, an attorney hired by Fairview residents and the newly formed Loblolly Pine Alliance nonprofit created to fight Fairview’s decision in court. “A lot of municipalities have some very detailed stormwater regulations, but those must be actually followed.”
Local government plays an increasingly critical role in planning for flood mitigation in Tennessee, as climate change ushers in heavier rainy seasons, increased development covers more once-absorbent lands with homes, driveways and roads and catastrophic flood events devastate communities.
Between 2000 to 2020 there were nearly 3,000 floods across Tennessee, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Events database. On average, floods cost Tennessee taxpayers $243 million annually, according to the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.
Alerted to stormwater rules, board fails to follow them
Last May, before the board cast its vote, another attorney hired by local residents alerted commissioners that stormwater calculations — necessary for local officials to be able to assess the risk for flooding events from any new development — were required under city law.
For every three inches of rain in a one hour period, an additional 80,000 additional gallons of stormwater flow could result once the Groves property is developed, Elizabeth Murphy, the attorney, told the board.
Murphy urged the board to require the developer to submit calculations to show where that water would flow, citing Fairview rules that require the board to review 25- and 100-year estimates of rainfall.
“What’s going to happen to the 80,000 in extra gallons of water coming down?” Murphy asked the board.
The Groves property sits on elevated land adjacent to two subdivisions and abutting the beloved 700-acre Bowie Nature Area, one of the largest city-owned parks in the state, sparking broader concern not only from nearby residents who fear their homes may flood but from park-goers who hike, bike and visit the park.
Eileen Brogan, president of the nonprofit Friends of Bowie Nature Park, stepped forward to tell the board she was alarmed at the potential impact of flooding.
“There’s no visible stormwater mitigation along most of the common border between the Groves Property and the park,” she said.
The public comments did not appear to sway Fairview’s governing body, and Mayor Debbie Rainey proceeded to a final vote.
“Why don’t you send those in the morning,” Rainey asked a representative for developers present at the meeting. Rainey was referring to stormwater calculations the board was legally required to review. The board then approved the rezoning necessary for the development.
A month later, Holleman filed suit on behalf of the Loblolly Pine Alliance.
Multiple meetings, multiple concerns
The development plan had been reviewed in multiple commission meetings before its approval in May.
A month before the final vote, the developer had responded to concerns by offering modifications to the plan: The number of homes was reduced to 166 from an original plan for 180. The property would have an additional 100-foot buffer between new homes and the park. Stormwater would flow into a drainage area and divert to the street, then a catch basin and then flow to city storm drains.
Vice Mayor Lisa Anderson noted she had been impressed to learn that the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) was regularly inspecting construction sites to monitor runoff at another Fairview development. That has allayed the concern about stormwater, she said.
“I felt a lot more comforted that they (TDEC) oversee this, and quite adamantly,” she said.
TDEC, however, does not monitor stormwater unless it suspects it contains contaminants that are flowing into a creek or stream. It is up to municipalities to manage the volume or direction of stormwater discharge.
Judge: Board followed “unlawful procedure”
In June of last year, the Loblolly Pine Alliance – and local residents Elmer Mobley and Tim Rocco – filed suit to stop the development.
And late last month, a Williamson County judge sided with the alliance of residents, saying the Fairview Board of Commissioners “followed an unlawful procedure” in failing to review stormwater estimates before green-lighting one of the largest developments to come to northeast Williamson County in recent years.
Fairview’s own rules “requires these calculations to be present at the time of consideration to ensure the Board has all the pertinent information in front of it for discussion,” Judge Michael Binkley noted.
“This allows the public and the Board to have the full record and ensure the decision made is based on hard evidence and concrete facts. Allowing a vote without the required materials undermines the entire process.”
Mobley, who has lived in Fairview about six years, said he and his neighbors were hopeful city officials will analyze stormwater patterns and require the developer to add safeguards to control the flow of stormwater flowing from new housing to his neighborhood.
“We are not anti-development,” Mobley said. “It just needs to be done with care, not just grab at it. Because once it’s done we have to live with it.”
But city officials appear poised to move forward with the plan without significant change next month.
Scott Collins, Fairview’s city manager, said Tuesday that the Fairview Board of Commissioners has already accepted the stormwater calculations, which were submitted six months after residents filed their lawsuit.
“The development is approved,” Collins said. “The only issue is whether or not the stormwater plan was approved.”
Collins said he expects the board to approve those plans at their next meeting on May 5.
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