COOKEVILLE – An environmental group has filed a petition in opposition to a proposed retail development on Interstate Drive in Cookeville – one that promises to bring several new national merchants to town – and a public hearing set to further discuss the matter this week has been postponed.
The Tennessee Sierra Club, in documents submitted to the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, say the developer behind the project, known as the Shoppes at Eagle Pointe, has failed to justify the need to fill in – or “destroy,” they say – nearly 4 acres of wetlands on the 40-acre site, which is adjacent to Cheddars. Because of its petition, a public hearing scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday in Cookeville has been canceled until further notice, TDEC said.
The hearing, which was requested by project applicant Browning Development Solutions, was considered a major test for a project that has garnered significant public attention. The site in question, however, is a known challenge; as such, it’s been passed over by at least a half a dozen developers over the years, officials noted.
CHM Development, which has been listed as Browning’s partner, at one point said the project was slated for summer 2016. Now, at the very least, that piece of the puzzle is quite unclear.
“I’ve been here 32 years and have never had this scenario,” said Mike Lee, TDEC, division of water pollution control. “We have to suspend everything and wait for the (Sierra petition) to take its course. I’m at the point where I’m waiting for somebody to tell me what to do next. I don’t know what happens now.
“But to the best our knowledge, this issue is not dead in the water, and we’ll continue to move forward,” Lee added. “From the indications I’ve received, those who are opposed to it are dedicated to moving forward, and the applicant itself is equally committed.”
The Shoppes, as proposed, would include 265,000-square-feet of retail that’s expected to generate more than 600 new jobs and $2.4 million annually in local tax revenue, the developer has said.
Making their case
Local attorney Brian Paddock, one of two co-counsels representing the Sierra Club, said it wasn’t their intent to delay Wednesday’s public hearing, but TDEC’s filing deadlines necessitated action before that date.
That action – Sierra filed what’s called a petition for declaratory order – necessitates all work on the Browning Development permit cease until a hearing is held with the Tennessee Water Quality Control Board, per TDEC’s own rules.
Sierra is objecting, Paddock said, Browning’s justification in filling in the wetlands. Because 2.7 acres of the wetlands are considered “exceptional,” a classification based on type, location and value, Browning needed to satisfy two additional requirements, he said: one, that there are no alternative sites for the project, and, two, that it’s a necessity both socially and economically.
“We feel they’ve failed to make their case on both points,” Paddock told the UCBJ. “This wetland has been classified as exceptional partly because it’s just about last significant piece of wetland in the urban area in Cookeville.”
TDEC, in its evaluation, determined those requirements had been met, Lee said, after “many months” of discussion. The department also received one letter of support. John Turvaville, who listed a Buffalo Valley PO box, said Browning Development “seems more than willing to go above and beyond the minimal requirements to compensate for the small area of wetlands that will be disturbed.” The developer has proposed restoring, enhancing and preserving 35 acres of watershed next to Falling Water River to replace the 3.26 total acres it will displace at the site.
Paddock disagrees with TDEC’s finding.
“There’s no place in available materials from the department where anyone sat down and said, ‘this is why we were persuaded, there’s no alternative site and it’s necessary for economic and social development,'” he said. “Their (Browning Development’s) preference for this site is simply that, a preference. And I don’t think that really satisfies legal tests.”
The Sierra Club isn’t the only opposition. Richard Finch, a professional geologist, submitted a letter against it. Deborah Sam, a Cookeville resident, also wrote several emails to TDEC officials voicing her concerns.
“Simply saying…600 jobs over and over again in the application does not make the project important socially or economically,” she wrote. “It also does not provide much detail…It can be dangerous for a community to rely on big box or large chain stores for economic well being,” she added.
“I’m not in commercial real estate, but people who live around here know that there are other sites along Interstate 40 and even nearer to interchanges than this site,” Paddock said. “The idea that there are no other sites as visible and easily accessible is just not true. There have been at least six other developers look at this property, but nobody even applied for a permit because they knew they were going to have a very difficult time trying to meet the legal test for destroying the wetland.”
As for the next step, or even a timeline for a hearing on the Sierra Club petition, it’s unclear. It seems unlikely, Paddock said, that anything will happen before the end of the year. It’s also unclear if any of the tenants for the Shoppes at Eagle Pointe have signed lease agreements and if such a delay will sway their commitments.
But Lee said both parties – the applicant and the opposition – look likely to follow through.
“I know each side is committed to pursuing their own path,” he said.