Photo by Rachael Long
By RACHAEL LONG
For the first time this municipal election season, the community met its candidates for the Brentwood City Commission race.
The Williamson County Republican Party held an early-morning candidate forum for the nine hopefuls running for four open seats on the Brentwood Board of Commissioners.
With that many minds, there was no shortage of ideas for the questions moderator David Fowler posed. The forum began round-robin style, and Fowler went down the line of candidates asking each one a question drawn at random.
While the forum style did not allow each candidate a chance to answer every question, it did open some candidates up to topics that may not be an issue addressed in their typical platform.
Republican Party chair Debbie Deaver also ensured those in attendance had the ability to follow up with individual candidates by providing their contact information.
Topics that came up included the use of tax dollars, impact fees to cover the cost of education and commercial construction, whether Brentwood residents wanted more mixed-use residential housing, the city’s aging sewer system, and more.
To best represent the candidates’ positions, here’s a look at the questions they were given at random and the answers they gave.
Wyatt Rex Allen
Q: “In terms of population density, the Tapestry has almost 400 apartments in comparison to a subdivision like Montclair off Mallory Lane which has 130. Are 400 apartments enough for Brentwood, and do you feel the majority of citizens want more mixed-use residential housing?”
A: No, I actually spoke about this when Tapestry was first being considered in the Brentwood City Commission, so I think originally…those are apartments. They were originally proposed as probably condos with home ownership, which I think home ownership is very critical to any development in Brentwood. I don’t think that any condo or apartment or temporary housing should be allowed in Brentwood. I think that goes against the Brentwood values, as they are today. In fact, I don’t know if its legal, but I would be in favor of proposing some rules and regulations on Tapestry to see if those are or should become home ownership condos in the future. But whether it’s a 15 or 20-year plan to get those into home ownership…I think the last I saw was 95 to 100 kids coming out of the Tapestry into our Brentwood city schools, which is a problem. I don’t think that was the intent, it was sold as a retirement community for downsizing…personally, I don’t see people who live in 5,000-6,000-square foot Brentwood housing moving to a 900-square foot apartment. It’s probably not going to happen, so I’m absolutely not in favor of any more residential or apartments in Brentwood.
Q: “Growth in surrounding cities with apartments and high-density housing has not only created traffic congestion, but school crowding, and is driving the need to build new schools. Is there anything that Brentwood could do to make sure our citizens are not paying for other municipalities’ growth?”
A: It’s the age-old question, right? So, I believe that we do pay a fair share, we do have the most assessed value in the county. I think that we…as a Scales dad, I would like to see those funds be directed to our schools. I don’t believe a kid should ever go to a portable. I don’t think that’s right, I don’t think that’s something that should be allowed. Our community is so strong financially that that seems like a very…doesn’t seem like a very good idea in this day and age, especially with security and safety. Trying to answer your question, it’s a very difficult one, I know there’s been a plan on the books for looking into Brentwood city schools, maybe that’s something we can look at. I think that was probably brought up and was probably discredited because it’s not really allowable under the Tennessee current state laws, but I’d be open to look at it. Not saying I’m in favor of it, but I think it’s something that should be explored. The school districts are overcrowded. We do need some financial help, and I think Brentwood can provide that in whatever that could be.
Q: “In Williamson County…homebuilders are suing the county because they were asked to pay a developmental impact fee for new school construction. Fees are a fraction of the cost to taxpayers to build the school…Are you in favor or opposed to the educational impact fee and would you consider a commercial construction impact fee in Brentwood?”
A: I believe Brentwood has impact fees already…In terms of the county impact fee, they did that fee, it is currently in court. I do think that it’s appropriate for the builders to help pay those fees, and I would have been in favor of that fee at the time. The fee has been collected, and I believe the data shows it did not make a detrimental impact on the industry during the time. As far as Brentwood doing that, I think there’s probably more to look into to see if that’s a worthwhile thing, but the Brentwood City Commission…the schools are a county asset, so the Brentwood City Commission does make donations to the PTOs and all the schools in Brentwood, which helps support that, which I think is very good thing…As far as the specific impact fee, yeah, I’d vote for that.
Q: “We frequently hear people say we should increase taxes to fund our schools, however, Brentwood already pays 26 percent of all property taxes in the county. Tax increases do not guarantee the money will go to Brentwood schools. So how does Brentwood ensure we’re not building schools for other municipalities while our schools are not being adequately funded?”
A: This is an issue that comes up quite a bit, is whether or not Brentwood is getting its fair share in the county. And I think to really do that fairly, you need to take a look at the totality of the relationship between Brentwood and Williamson County. We do have Williamson County schools here which are performing very well by almost every metric I’ve seen. But also the Williamson County School Board — in particular the Capital Improvement Plan — has plans for significant investments on folks for Ravenwood High School, and they’ve got a building you can see at Brentwood High School for STEM that’s already coming up out of the ground. And there are plans in the works for Brentwood Middle and other investments. But in addition to that, we need to take into account the…ambulance services, recycling services which are paid for in Brentwood by the county. We also have a very deep relationship with the Parks system in the county. So running a P&L on your marriage is a dicey kind of affair, and frankly, Brentwood is part of a larger community that includes Williamson County, and I think the interaction between all of those is very important. For us as city commissioners, being good stewards and good advocates of our money and represented Brentwood well in the greater community is an important part of the job.
Q: “In two years, the City of Brentwood will be getting extra tax income from the sales tax increase that was, in the short-term, given to Williamson County. What do you propose to do with this extra income?”
A: Well, we’ve got a new police station that’s being built. We have a new fire station that’s being built. So I think those funds could be certainly used towards that. Right now, in the interim, we’re very happy that we could be of help to the school system in providing that interim fund. And I think all the municipalities that entered into that agreement limited it to three-year participation. I’m not saying that the City Commission at that time might not re-evaluate it, but right now the city is to recoup those taxes at the end of that time.
Q: “The City of Brentwood has been good stewards of taxpayer money, but as an added measure of precaution, should the city require a full cost-benefit analysis of any new expenditure of over one million dollars to avoid costly mistakes?”
A: I think the city tries to be very fiscally responsible with every dime we spend. We don’t wait until we get to the million-dollar mark. We’re very careful with our budget, with our funding, and it may not be what they’re calling it specifically, but they do project the return on the money. What’s we’re getting for what we spend. And I think our staff does a marvelous job, I won’t take credit for that. We’ve got a great financial staff, and they analyze — I’m not kidding — every dollar that’s spent at City Hall. And when we talked about taxes, Brentwood has very low taxes. When you get your county and city tax bill, it’s combined. Our percentage of that is quite low, we’re very proud of our tax rate. We have not had a tax increase in 29 years, and not many cities can say that…so someone is analyzing something along the way.
Q: “It is commonly believed that Brentwood is built out, with little room for new home construction. However, according to the Brentwood 2030 Plan, the city projects 7,000 new homes can be built which would increase our population by about 45 percent. How do you propose we maintain our residential quality of life, given the very real possibility of almost doubling our population? And would you consider up-zoning the one-acre residential lot requirement in some cases to control growth?”
A: You’re correct, it’s about 7,000 acres that has not yet been built out, most of it residential. And with that, 25,000 more people will come to Brentwood once that’s built out, taking us up to about 65,000 people. That’s significant when you think about the traffic, the overcrowding of the schools, the burden on our infrastructure. We have a great plan in Brentwood, and that’s what makes us so unique, is the one-acre zoning. I would like to keep the one-acre zoning because otherwise we are going to be built out, and we’re going to have increased problems with adding that many more homes. So the high-density housing is going to add a significant amount of traffic to our growing population. And schools are an issue. We don’t have the land available for the schools that we…we can’t expand our schools much more, so if we continue growing at that rate. We’re going to out-pace what our infrastructure can handle. And by the way, no, I’m not for up-zoning. Flat out.
Q: “Are you in favor of subsidizing mass transit or the development of light rail for Brentwood residents to go to downtown Nashville?”
A: We do have a lot of hyper-growth to the North, South and all around us. If the Brentwood citizens want it and want to pay for it, then I guess we’ve got to consider it. But our Brentwood citizens love their cars, so I don’t know how many would utilize that. I think first, there’s a lot more cheaper and more cost-effective way to do some temporary testing before we jump on the light rail bandwagon and pay for that. We could do something like put in electric buses, utilize roads that we already have in existence, to kind of get an idea of if the citizens of Brentwood are actually going to utilize it. But if they’re not going to utilize it, why should we pay for it? But we do have to do…anything we do needs to be in conjunction with working with the state because so many of our roads through Brentwood are all state roads. Moores Lane, Franklin Road, Old Hickory, all these roads that we travel all the time. So we’ve got to work in conjunction with them, but there’s some other options before we just jump in and pay for a light rail system.
Q: “Many residents are not aware of Brentwood’s development limitations due to our aging sewer system. Do you feel Brentwood’s infrastructure can support more commercial growth without property tax increases?”
A: I can tell you this from being on the Brentwood Planning Commission over the last four years, there is hardly a meeting that goes by where somebody doesn’t say, doesn’t talk about high density or its brought up in the topic. So here’s my answer to that, and I hear city staff talk about this all the time: as long as we maintain the current planning code for Brentwood — we’re about 85 percent built out at this point — as long as we maintain the current planning codes, our sewer systems are going to be adequate here forward throughout the rest of our development.
Q: “A proposed feasibility study for a Brentwood municipal school district was denied in a tie vote by commissioners. Would you support a feasibility study to consider creating a Brentwood city school district?”
A: “I have spoken with enough citizens from the City of Brentwood…I already had my own opinion on this, but I’ve spoken with enough citizens in the City of Brentwood to believe that, no. This would not be a good idea. I think that most of the residents have already spoken on this. I believe that it’s not sustainable budget-wise, and so, no. I would not support that.”
Q: “Brentwood has done a great job managing the city budget and controlling growth. At the same time, the county has given Williamson Inc. or the Williamson County Chamber of Commerce about two million dollars to fuel growth without a plan to pay for it. Do you support this use of tax dollars and will you vote for tax payers in Brentwood to continue to give money annual to Williamson Inc.?”
A: I think that’s a great question, and it’s not a subject that I am intimately familiar with, but I would like to say I am pro-business — but not at the expense of Brentwood residents. I had noticed that in a couple of budget meetings that I attended, and it was a big question mark that I put. If I had to come up with an answer right now, I would say no I would not agree with that. I don’t think we should use our hard-earned and somewhat high property taxes to fund anyone’s Chamber of Commerce, even though I love the Chamber of Commerce. I think it should be self funding.
Q: “Should the Williamson County Schools give Brentwood and other cities a monthly report that forecasts school overcrowding based on projected residential growth, so that everyone knows where the problems are, what is going on and can plan better to prevent school overcrowding?”
A: Of course. I don’t see that to be much of a question. I know you didn’t write the questions. But I would assume something of that nature is already happening. I would like to say one thing, though, while I’ve still got a few seconds left. I am troubled by the fact that we pay, as Brentwood citizens, on a per-square foot basis, pretty high taxes, and a lot of our tax dollars are now going to schools being built in other parts of the county. I think we already pay our fair share, and I think our schools are probably somewhat underfunded. So I would be in favor of more Brentwood money going into Brentwood schools, not Spring Hill schools.
Q: “What is the one single thing commissioners can do to help our long-term traffic problems?”
A: Whether you talk about construction or you talk about growth here, it all comes down to density. Density, density, and we have got to control that. And the way you do that is by preserving and protecting what I think is the cornerstone of Brentwood, period. And that is our low-density one-acre tracts for residential. You know, we are building out. Growth is inevitable. Brentwood is attractive, and Brentwood attracts growth. How we manage that is extremely important here and…I don’t know if we’ll build out soon, but we have these conversations constantly. I think everybody here needs to rest assured that the Planning Commission and the City Commission are constantly talking about just such things because we’re all in the business of protecting that and making sure this all works.
Q: “Why do you feel most people move to Brentwood?”
A: That’s a great one…The list is one that I think we can all agree on and that is the amazing parks, the green space, the density, Cal Turner’s farm, our incredible world-class library — I’m a huge fan of the library. We’re surrounded by nature and wildlife. We have all these fabulous facilities for our recreation, these parks that we have, and the soccer communities that we have. The list…I’m going to go past my one minute just listing everything that’s wonderful about this community. But all that stuff takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of attention, and our City Commission and Planning Commission can pat ourselves on the back here. We work really hard to make sure that all stays in place because we are unique, and we need to stay that way.
Q: “For residents, a certain demographic who would like to downsize have a limited inventory of smaller homes in Brentwood to choose from. Given the HUD requirements for age-restricted over 55 housing, are there other alternatives such as re-zoning to allow higher density housing that you would consider?”
A: You see along Heritage Way that they’re putting up another four-story apartment complex for seniors, and I think there are opportunities for seniors. And I think we should not be misled, too, by this whole idea that once you turn 60 or 65 then you must have to move or you must have to downsize. There are opportunities for seniors to leave here, and matter fact, when I go canvassing different neighborhoods, a good number of the people that I visit are over 60 and they’re doing quite well in their home on one acre. So no, I would not be in favor of rezoning a bunch of communities to allow for high-density housing.
Q: “What are the challenges to increasing population density to greater than one home per acre on the remaining undeveloped land?”
A: I think the most obvious challenge is the one we already have which is that traffic is out of control. You talk about residential density here and that’s only part of the problem. The other part of the problem is places like Nolensville right down the road, and all of that traffic from Nolensville — they’re building houses after houses after houses there — all of that is spilling out onto other places like Concord Road. And we are, I think, continually being somewhat reactive as opposed to being proactive. Recently we widened Concord Road to three lanes, for example, we put in a turn lane. OK, well that might have been really good about 15 years ago but right now, it’s already too small. Meanwhile — and I love bike trails — but we have a 30-foot bike trail that’s usually not used and it’s going to nowhere. So I think that the most obvious answer to that question is the traffic, traffic that’s out of control and other infrastructure issues that need to be firmly in place before we do anything like that. I’m just not in favor of doing any increased density.
Q: “It has been suggested that we increase the commercial density in Maryland Farms by 50 percent to spur redevelopment, which could include taller buildings and mixed-use, which means both retail and residential rentals. Would you support this, and if we increase density in one area of the city, should we reduce it in others to control growth?”
A: “No. No, no, no. One of the reasons we’re talking about a new police headquarters, [is that] the police can’t leave City Hall right now and go down Maryland Way because it’s so congested. I’m all for making the buildings better, we could remodel them as is. But we do not need to bring more people into our commercial area. No, no, no.”
Q: “Brentwood currently has an ordinance against short-term rentals, such as Airbnb. Would you ever consider reversing this in the future?”
A: “No. Airbnb is a real issue. There was a house…that was remodeled. It held multiple, multiple people. I think that was 20 people. There were people coming in on weekends, there were limos coming in. This is in a residential neighborhood. That’s not what Brentwood is about. I feel firmly in our current regulations, and I would stick to them 100 percent.”
Fowler gave the candidates two questions to which they each had to respond with either “yes” or “no,” with no discussion.
Toward the end of Saturday’s panel, Fowler fielded questions from the audience.
Of those who spoke up were two women from the Williamson County Cultural Competency Council, Inetta Gaines and Natasha Green. They wanted to discuss recent issues of racial insensitivity within a Williamson County school.
“What can we do as a community — what would you suggest we do as a community — to address these issues in the immediate?” Gaines asked the potential leaders.
Current commissioner Ken Travis spoke first.
“I was horrified to read about that. I don’t have any children left at home, but more than the City Commission, I would think every Brentwood resident would go get with their kids and talk to them about this and how horrible it is,” Travis said.
He also suggested that people bring their concerns to county representatives and to the school board.
And while the candidates cannot directly address the issue, Green said they wanted to hear from community leaders.
“We have leaders that are running for office that are representative of our community,” Green said. “And our community now is this great, diverse melting pot of different cultures, different histories, and where we can all bring a different viewpoint to just the way our community lives now. It’s not 1969 anymore, it’s 2019.”
Because it wasn’t mentioned in the forum, Gaines said she wanted to know if the candidates knew about the issue and if so, how they felt about it.
“I know that they can’t address any of the issues that are going on in the school board…because the school board does that,” Gaines said. “But they, as commissioners, surely they represent us as well. So I want to know, where do you stand on these issues?”
Other audience-fielded questions included ones about the city’s role in managing vacant or abandoned properties, crime-related procedures and the possibility of a creating feasibility study for Brentwood school district.
While some answers surprised the audience, most candidates aligned along the same few issues: maintaining Brentwood’s one-acre density, protecting green space and generally keeping Brentwood as the same place its residents have grown to love.