JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WHL) — Cow pastures are morphing into cul-de-sacs all around Tennessee’s oldest town, which finds itself in the midst of a residential building boom.

The town recorded 102 single-family building permits from January through July this year with a value of $21.4 million. The dollar value is nearly triple last year’s to this point and well above double the 2020 number, while the number of units from those two years was in the high 30s.

Mayor Chuck Vest said the COVID-19 pandemic jump-started growth in the town, which even before the pandemic saw its population increase by a higher percentage (16%) from 2010 to 2020 than nearly any other Northeast Tennessee locality.

Homes in various stages of completion in Jonesborough’s Riddle Ridge subdivision. (WJHL photo)

“We saw an influx of new people moving from California and New York and New Jersey, Arizona, Colorado, all over,” Vest said. “And it’s continued to come.”

In fact, the total permits through July exceeded the previous full years in both value and number. There were 74 permits pulled with a $16 million value in 2020, followed by 75 valued at $17.4 million all of last year.

The action has even attracted national builder D.R. Horton to the scene, with records showing the company pulling about three dozen permits between March and July. Vest said the people moving in include a fair number who are retiring here, but others are bringing families.

“They say Tennessee, and East Tennessee in particular, is a great place to educate their children, so it’s a pretty good mix (of ages) right now,” Vest said.

He said the town currently has sufficient water and wastewater infrastructure to handle the growth even with a low property tax rate ($1.20 per $100 of assessed value). Vest said property tax revenues aren’t enormous, but that commercial growth is beginning to follow, with sales tax revenue coming along with it.

In his observation, a good number of new residents are purposefully leaving areas they see as high cost and not sufficiently conservative as much as they are gravitating to the area’s natural beauty.

“In most cases now the vast majority of them are coming from places where they feel like their freedoms have been infringed on and they feel like this is somewhat of a sanctuary here in Tennessee and in Jonesborough,” he said.

While there’s no quantitative evidence to back that up at this point — no peer-reviewed studies out of East Tennessee State University (ETSU) about specific migration patterns post-COVID — Vest said he believes the town’s elected leadership would do well to concern itself with working to maintain the things that make Jonesborough attractive and that the revenue to support good infrastructure will follow.

“That’s what’s attracted people here, and we’ve got to make sure we protect that and nourish it as much as we can, because that’s what keeps us here and that’s what attracts them, so that’s going to be the most important thing to me.”

Even with a housing slowdown predicted nationally, Vest said he expects continued growth in the town, which likely has crested 6,000 residents by now (its estimated July 2021 population was 5,954). That would put the town at double its 1990 population of 3,091. Fifty years ago, Jonesborough barely had 1,500 residents.

“The things that have attracted people to East Tennessee is not going to change,” he said. “The people who are coming here because they’re not happy in New York or California or anywhere else … that’s going to continue, the governments are not going to change in those places.

“I think whenever you see school years end we’ll see an increase in the number of families moving here, I think you’ll see people continue to retire. So as long as we keep this great quality of life we have here people are going to be attracted to it and it’s going to continue.”