Fight brews over development in flood prone area of Donelson - WSMV Channel 4

Fight brews over development in flood prone area of Donelson

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In many places in Nashville, development is embraced with open arms.

But in the Pennington Bend area of Donelson, several neighbors said certain new construction projects could cost them their lives.

After the 2010 flood, Metro bought out more than 200 homeowners – people who lived in the floodway and sustained damage or faced potential risks for the next flood.

Now Metro Councilman Jeff Syracuse is trying to develop another buyout program to purchase remaining vacant lots in his district.

“We need to take every single precaution we possibly can to make sure people are developing responsibly along the river,” Syracuse said.

Lesli Bills lived on Pennington Bend Drive during the 2010 flood. She remembered watching her house go up in flames as she escaped from the rising waters on a jet ski.

Bills eventually rebuilt her whole life. And now, she said she fears she might need to do it again.

“Seven years later, we are facing the same situation and the same possibilities,” Bills said.

Bills lives along the Cumberland River in an area where Metro bought out 25 homes destroyed by the 2010 flood.

Syracuse said the goal was to hopefully mitigate the level of flooding during the next storm. Several lots on Pennington Bend have been converted to green spaces.

But Metro stopped short of buying all the riverfront lots.

Now developers are eyeing some of the properties that were vacant before the flood.

“To think these lots would be useless is devastating,” said Carol Anderson, who has owned land on Pennington Bend Drive since 1988.

Anderson said she purchased the property with hopes of building her dream home. She never broke ground.

Now Anderson is working with developer Adam Epstein to build a home on each of the three empty parcels.

“I love Nashville and I love the river and I think beautiful things going there only add to the beauty of it,” Anderson said.

Mary O’Neil moved to Pennington Bend two years ago. She also supports developing the vacant lots, pointing to property values.

Last year, realtors.com ranked the Donelson zip code the 15th hottest area in the country.

“To let no improvement ever come there, that’s a sad thing,” O’Neil said. “There’s already some sad houses down there.”

Since 2010, flooding has been a constant concern on Pennington Bend. Images of Hurricane Harvey in Houston and its remnants in Nashville have only stoked those fears.

Flooding has also affected the appraised value of property in the area.

Emails obtained by the New 4 I-Team suggest an appraiser reviewed 15 lots rendered “unbuildable,” according to the Metro Property Assessor’s Office. The appraised value of each parcel was reduced to $1500 after the 2010 flood.

Anderson’s parcels were included in that review and were also appraised at $1500.

Epstein and Anderson must request a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals, which is the first of several hurdles before moving forward with development.

At least 18 neighbors wrote letters to ZBA, voicing opposition to the project. Compare that to just one letter in support of the development.

Some residents fear other projects could be in the works.

In an email sent to several city leaders, Metro Water assistant supervisor Tom Palko identified 43 vacant lots in the Pennington Bend area that could be “buildable” with variances.

Councilman Syracuse said he fears if Anderson’s lot is approved, the rest could follow.

“This is about flood damage, this is about people’s lives,” Syracuse said.

Syracuse is now proposing another Metro buyout program that would target those remaining vacant lots.

It’s unclear how much money would be involved. The previous buyout program cost approximately $48 million, with support from FEMA. More than $5.8 million went toward buying homes in the Pennington Bend neighborhood.

“If we can absorb some of those properties, pun intended, that is less density that would ultimately create the level of damage we saw last time,” Syracuse said.

Anderson said she would consider the buyout. She is asking for approximately $70,000 for each parcel.

“We just want fairness,” Anderson said. “Not favors, but fairness.”

Meanwhile, Bills is asking for fairness of a different kind.

“The more houses, the more building, the less place it has to go and where is it going to go?” said Bills, referring to the water. “It’s gonna take our lives.”

Epstein declined an on-camera interview.

Later this month Epstein and Anderson will request a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals, before seeking approval from the Stormwater Management Committee.

The board has approved at least eight other variances on Pennington Bend since 2007, according to documents from the ZBA.

Four of the people who wrote against Anderson and Epstein’s request have received variances of their own. Bills said she requested a variance while she was rebuilding her home after the flood.

The Stormwater Management Committee rejected a variance on Thursday related to another property on Pennington Bend Road, but approved other variances related to add-ons for existing homes.

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