During a heated town hall meeting Monday night over luxury resort Blackberry Farm’s request to rezone more than 5,000 acres of local property, moderator Rhea Morgan repeatedly had to remind attendees to pose questions, not statements, to Blackberry’s development director, Matt Smith.
He had shown up “graciously,” she said, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
It had a mixed effectiveness among the roughly 120 local residents gathered at Rocky Branch Community Center.
“You are the messenger,” said local man Raymond Dunlap to Smith. “So what is the message you’re going to take back? Are we a bunch of dumb hillbillies? (Or) is it gonna be that there’s concerned people here? My grandfathers lived here, my great-grandfathers lived in this area. This is a heritage!”
A loud applause nearly drowned out his next statement that Chilhowee Mountain was a history “that does not need to be fenced in for your millionaires to enjoy.”
Smith said he heard the residents’ concerns: Too much traffic on their small roads, a “nostalgia for things to never change.”
He sympathized, he said, but Blackberry “does the best job we can do.” And more so, that owing to the approximately 2,800 acres they set in permanent conservation, they have “done more than anybody in this town.”
Morgan then broke her own rule.
“We are deeply grateful for the conservation easement, but it is a bittersweet gratitude,” she said. “Because there are a ton of people in this room that grew up hiking, camping, making out, asking engagements, and we no longer have access to Chilhowee Mountain.”
It was one of many powerful and charged exchanges at the ostensibly informational gathering Morgan had organized with Kathleen Puckett, a local woman running for one of the area’s County Commission seats.
The purpose of the meeting was to spread the facts, Puckett said, addressing the audience at the beginning. Attendants could support the rezoning or not, “if that’s what your informed opinion tells you.”
Blackberry Mountain, an upcoming resort complex located on 5,200 acres through East Millers Cove, seeks to rezone the 16 parcels from rural designations to one allowing resort development in a bid to create a historic-themed commercial stretch in Walland, where the company owns 10.5 acres. The development is Blackberry Farm’s first hotel expansion in 40 years.
Blackberry says that the proposed rezoning is intended to allow commercial properties on its Walland properties, and to bring Blackberry Mountain into a more appropriate zoning designation for what it already does with a special exception to its rural zoning.
Rural residents neighboring Blackberry worry that rezoning could irrevocably allow more future development beyond the current plans, whether by Blackberry or potential new owners.
Close to a dozen residents neighboring the construction ongoing at Blackberry Mountain attended a public hearing for the rezoning at a County Commission committee meeting held earlier in June.
The residents encouraged commissioners to delay a vote to forward the rezoning, of which they agreed.
Monday’s meeting began with a presentation by Morgan explaining what Blackberry seeks to do. Smith agreed with Morgan’s explanations.
Then followed an hour and a half of questions and answers, during which Smith said he would do his best to dispel false rumors.
Some had believed that the requested designation, Planned Rural Resort District, or PRRD, allowed a greater density of residential development than the current rural zoning. In actuality, it is less, Smith said.
The significant difference with the PRRD is that it allows commercial enterprises, he said.
Other rumors, however, were true.
Sharon Huskey, who previously had appeared at the public hearing in June, asked if it were true that a parking lot was to be built next to her property.
It would be, Smith confirmed, and it would have a capacity for around 200 vehicles.
After an hour and a half of questions, Smith was asked to leave along with the press for the town hall’s discussion portion, as was decided by organizers before the meeting began.
Some people in the audience work for Blackberry, Puckett said, and would not want Smith to hear their complaints, or for others at Blackberry to later read about them in the newspaper.
Outside the center some audience members approached Smith to thank him for his explanatory work.
Others were less welcoming.
“Don’t turn this into Pigeon Forge,” a woman told him as he left.
Blackberry Farm’s own informational session will be 9-11 a.m. July 7, at 5324 Old Walland Highway.
The resolution for rezoning is set for the July 10 Blount County Commission Agenda Committee meeting.