GRAY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Danny Sells stands on a rural patch of land where he’s lived for nearly 60 years and points across his fence to an adjoining pasture that several generations of the Keebler family farmed.
“I’ve farmed with the Keeblers … and we took hay off it and stuff for Ms. Keebler over time,” Sells told News Channel 11 as late morning sun filtered through early blooming redbud trees. “It’s always been there and something that’s been pleasant to see.”
Within months, though, the 100-acre pasture within a stone’s throw of Washington County’s Ridgeview Elementary School is likely to be dug up by heavy equipment — and by late 2023, work could begin on the first of nearly 400 single-family homes planned for the site.
For around half a year, Johnson City’s Planning Commission and staff have worked toward a development plan for the so-called Keebler Annexation, which totals 133 acres of highly visible farmland just off State Route 75. The time and effort spent speak to how important the Johnson City metro’s biggest subdivision in years will be for the city and its surrounding communities as strong population growth seems set to continue indefinitely.
“In five or six years when it is completely done, is it going to be something that you can look at and say, ‘well, they did a pretty good job on this’ or is it something you look at and say, ‘man, that’s a wreck,'” Sells said.
He’s hopeful it’s the former. So is Danny Karst, who owns Land Star Group, which purchased the 133 acres and plans to develop the street, water and other major infrastructure before passing the lots off to national homebuilder D.R. Horton.
Workshops, discussions and several changes to zoning regulations that were considered and then abandoned preceded the recent adoption of two overarching updates related to lot sizes/density and open space. Both will be prominently integrated into the Keebler subdivision, should Johnson City commissioners approve a requested rezoning next month.
“I do believe that we’re at a place now where we feel more comfortable, and they’ve gotten comfortable (city leaders) and I think hopefully the residents of Gray have grown a bit more comfortable,” Karst told News Channel 11.
It was the same sunny morning, and Karst and his wife and business partner Carla stood on a prominence in the rolling land within shouting distance of Sells’s property.
“We are intruding, we understand that this is another intrusion,” Karst said.
Sells, Karst and Johnson City leaders all know this project will set the tone for what all expect to be any number of new subdivisions in the community that still possesses a significant rural feel despite development along 75.
“This is … maybe not the only but one of the first developments in this area over the last few years that’s literally gonna be right in everybody’s face,” Sells said.
Like a great fishing hole that gets discovered
Signs of a multi-generational rural life abound in the outbuilding/shop/oversized man cave not far from Sells’s house. A U.S.D.A. Soil Conservation Service sign hangs from the ceiling along with birdhouses and bird feeders. Signs nailed to the wall include a vintage one for a Feed & Farm Supply outfit, proprietors Danny D. Sells and R. Shannon Salts.
Sells points to a large, color-coded map unfurled on the rough shop table displaying Johnson City’s territorial annexations by decade. Much of the northwestern part is white, designating unincorporated Washington County, with a few exceptions of sections of Gray annexed in the 1990s and 2000s. Sells expects significant changes in the coming months and years and while he doesn’t like it, he wants the area’s citizens to help control their own destiny — and the future satisfaction of people who will move there.
“As a rule, agriculturalists would much rather see this remain a farm,” said Sells, who bought a feed mill not far from here when he was in his early 20s and also worked for the USDA in the 1990s after aiding in Al Gore’s vice presidential campaign.
“It’s good land. It’s good ground. It’s been taken care of by the Keeblers.”
Sells also said he believes Karst’s plan, which city staff have recommended for approval, would bring a housing density that “does not belong in Gray, and the developer knows that’s exactly how I feel.”
But he’s a realist all the same.
“Having lived here all my life, I’ve known what a gem it was,” Sells said. “It’s like a really good fishing hole. You keep it secret as long as you can, and then eventually it gets found out. And Gray Station is definitely like that. I mean, it’s convenient to everywhere in the Tri-Cities.”
That’s what Karst and D.R. Horton see as well. Karst pointed to the significant business development along 75 from Interstate 26 to the Keebler land (a couple miles) and the fact that a sizeable apartment complex has already broken ground very close by.
“We feel like it would be nice to have homes put in with a lot of these businesses too,” Karst said. “It’s a good address for people to go back to Kingsport, to Bristol, to Greeneville, Johnson City of course. This is a bedroom community of Johnson City. This is what this is going to be.”
Sells recognizes that too, and in addition to being a realist, he’s a pragmatist.
“You’re dealing with what is, so how do you get it to come up and look and be as amenable to the community as you can get it?” Sells asked. “You can fight and scream and yell, and at the end of the day, you have a sore throat. You don’t have much else to say you’ve accomplished.”
He attended a community meeting Johnson City staff held in Gray last November about annexation, growth and the Keebler project and hopes more folks in Gray will get involved.
“At the meeting (last fall), comments were made amongst each other, ‘well, Johnson City’s just going to do what it wants to do, they don’t listen to us and they’re not gonna listen to us,'” Sells said.
“That’s a real tough nut to crack because they have that attitude when I would really like for them to be a part of this discussion.”
The neighbors who have tried to keep their voices heard are having some success, Sells said.
“What I think we, and I think the developer (Karst) has helped in this, what we have tried to do with the city is get them to begin to discuss how they are impacting communities as they develop.”
Two new tools: ‘Lot averaging’ and open space requirement
Karst agreed, saying Planning Commission Chairman Chris Dagenhart was instrumental in bringing stakeholders together from December, when commissioners tapped the brakes on the annexation, to March.
During that period, the city scrapped a previous plan that designated four main types of residential zoning — Keebler would have been “Rural Neighborhood” — and is now in the process of passing two primary zoning text amendments.
“Lot averaging” allows some flexibility in single-family house lot sizes as long as the average comes out to a pre-required level. For instance, the Keebler subdivision is seeking R2-B status for the 362 single-family lots. That status normally has a minimum lot size of 7,500 square feet, but lot averaging allows a size down to 80% of that and credit for lots up to 120% of the minimum.
Instead of a bunch of identical 7,500-square-foot lots, the current Karst plan has some variation, with a minimum size of 6,050 square feet and a maximum of 9,030.
“Everybody on that board worked really hard over the last two, three months,” Karst said. “It really got everybody to get in there to try to figure out those dynamics and see how to put them together.”
Karst was quick to acknowledge that much development has a significant impact. But tapping the brakes, he said, spurred his company to look more closely at the terrain and how the project could work financially while creating an end product that looked better to people driving by.
“We really need to try to use our resources to the best we can, and I feel like we’ve made a lot of moves to understand and get to know this property in a way that originally we didn’t,” Karst said.
That includes working with the second main new tool: a requirement that 15% of the land in a subdivision be reserved for qualified “open space.”
While some of that may be gained by public access to the adjacent Ridgeview School, Karst’s latest plans have a publicly accessible greenway traversing the length of Ford Creek behind the 126 townhomes planned for the front of the development. The single-family lots are behind the trail, and along it are several green areas for playgrounds and sports fields.
A wide boulevard that is the only entrance from Highway 75 bisects the trail and a clubhouse and pool are also nearby. The boulevard will climb toward the peak of the property and end in a large circle.
“I think that’s a great feature coming in. The area facing towards the road there, the clubhouse and the pool will be here and the playground for the HOA,” Karst said.
“I think that makes it really neat because down in this corridor, we’ll be able to put some fields. Hopefully, it’ll work out for the general public for everybody to use and hopefully, with Parks and Rec we’ll be able to work that out.”
Sells, who said the city and Washington County need to continue inviting public comment and even increase their efforts in that, sees promise in what the city eventually came up with. He said they tried to do too much at once last year in developing a completely new zoning process, deal with the annexation request and zone the Keebler property.
“My general experience doing three things at once, the chances are real good you’re gonna screw all three of them up,” Sells said. “That’s really where they came, I think to the conclusion when they called this thing off in December and started over. So I think that our discussions at that time helped him to realize that there were some issues that needed to be dealt with.”
While Sells doesn’t like the lot sizes and probably never will, he thinks the lot averaging has benefits.
“It allows the roads to contour much better with the landscape and be more pleasing to the eye,” Sells said. “It offers the potential for three different size houses at three different cost ranges and … I think from 75 it will help the looks of it some. I think the city sees that.”
Decision time looms
A second reading on the lot averaging text change goes before the City Commission Thursday. So do first readings on the zoning for the property (R2-B and for the townhouse area, RP-3 planned residential) and for the open space regulation.
Time is money, and Karst is ready to go.
“We should have been moving dirt eight months ago,” he said. “Hopefully maybe June, if these keep moving because we’ve been working on this for a long time.” Homes could be going up by November in that case, though the full buildout is expected to take five to seven years.
If votes keep progressing, the annexation request could go before the commission at its first May meeting on May 4.
Sells said he thinks the city and county have made some mistakes in the types of developments they’ve allowed in and around Gray to this point. He hopes this marks a turning point.
“When you look at assets in a piece of property such as Ford Creek that runs through the Keebler Farm and look at what the opportunities are there for the community to have access and the residents of this to have access, then it starts becoming something that the community can look at and say,’ why, here’s something that maybe benefits me.'”
He said the many people moving here from outside the area will become part of a community that either is or isn’t developing in a smart way.
“They are looking for amenities such as that, some that are close enough. We have the beautiful mountains that you can go to, but something local that you can do virtually every day that has some benefit and I think that’s what this does.”
One thing’s for sure — Sells will be paying attention.
“If you’re going to manage growth, you better manage it and you better manage as far ahead of it as you can,” he said. “I think (City Manager) Cathy Ball thinks that and wants to do that. But they’re not doing it yet. And they really haven’t ever done it.”
He said one key is creating understandable and measurable regulations on things like open space and lot averaging.
“Plan your work and work your plan, but you’ve also got to adjust your plan to make sure that you’re going for what your community wants you to.”