Driving along Holly Tree Gap Road in Williamson County, one will notice scenic combinations of rolling fields, deep woods, autumn-aged meadows and, recently, stark white signs with black lettering that read, “SAVE HOLLY TREE GAP FROM MILCROFTON.”
On Friday, Oct. 22, the Milcrofton Utility District filed a petition for the condemnation of 1.73 acres of historic land owned by local couple Andrew and Marianne Menefee Byrd after they refused to sell.
Milcrofton hopes to build two 40-foot-high water storage tanks on the property’s hill, each housing 2 million gallons of water. The project is focused on providing improved service to the utility's customers while accounting for increased capacity due to Williamson County’s continuous population growth.
"This project is to build two water reservoirs or tanks, which will improve many aspects of water service for approximately 30,000 people served by Milcrofton and help meet the long-term needs of our system as this county continues to grow," Milcrofton General Manager Mike Jones said. "The new reservoirs will increase water flow, increase pressure, increase the capacity of the system, provide increased fire protection, reduce electrical consumption, reduce operational cost and reduce long-term maintenance costs."
The Byrds are fighting the planned development tooth and nail, having hired legal representation and even an engineering firm to provide counsel.
“We’ve owned this property for 65 years,” Andrew Byrd said. “They didn’t give us title of this property to allow it to be turned into a utility dumping ground.”
This isn’t the couple’s first interaction with Milcrofton. In 2015, the Byrd family allowed the utility to run a water line through their property. Initially, they were happy to participate in what seemed to be a community service. Then, nearly eight years later, Milcrofton returned.
“We allowed a 30-inch — basically a yard wide — water line to be put across our property … and now [Milcrofton is] coming back later and saying, ‘oh, well, by the way, we now want to put our water reservoir up on the side of your hill’ and it represents 50% of the storage capacity of the entire Milcrofton Utility District,” Andrew Byrd said.
The Byrds have received a large amount of community support for the preservation of their land. More than 2,300 people have signed the “Save Holly Tree Gap” petition on www.change.org opposing Milcrofton’s eminent domain lawsuit.
The Heritage Foundation of Williamson County also publicly voiced its opposition to the utility’s actions.
“The mission of the Heritage Foundation is to preserve and protect the rich cultural heritage of our community, and the Menefee/Byrd farm is one of those historic places we will advocate to protect," Heritage Foundation President and CEO Bari Beasley stated in an announcement on Nov. 3. "Milcrofton’s pursuit of the Holly Tree Gap land not only disrespects private property rights, but it also disregards the historical significance of this special site that sits well outside of their service district.”
Granny White Pike, the first road ever built coming out of Nashville to Franklin, runs through the property.
The land was also privy to the historic retreat of Confederate General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee, where the force fought several Federal regiments and eventually succumbed to superior numbers. According to the Heritage Foundation, the defeat was one of many vital turning points of the Civil War in Williamson County.
"To our knowledge, the property does not have any historical markers," Jones said. "No one has given us evidence that the small, 1.73-acre site needed for the water reservoirs has any special history."
Milcrofton claims the Byrd property is the best location for the twin reservoirs because of the hill on location and its proximity to the utility’s existing major water supply.
However, the Byrds disagree, saying there are other spots that can be used.
"We found about five other sites that would be equally useful between us and the 7-mile run over to Milcrofton. … They don’t really need our site,” Andrew Byrd said.
He professes that the hill contains sliding soils and shale rock which would be detrimental to construction attempts. No archeological or environmental impact studies have been completed. Milcrofton cannot begin geological work without first having access the site.
"These reservoirs will be a substantial investment for Milcrofton," Jones said. "We would not make that investment without assuring ourselves that the site is stable and the tanks will last for years to come."
The lawsuit has created conversations surrounding the morality and legality of eminent domain laws in Tennessee. The Milcrofton Utility District board is comprised of three non-elected members that are appointed by the Williamson County mayor but are not required to report to him.
"The utility district has the statutory right of eminent domain," said attorney Sumner Bouldin of Bouldin and Bouldin PLC, a law firm based in Murfreesboro that specializes in eminent domain cases, business litigation, contracts and construction law. Bouldin and Bouldin is not involved with the Byrds' lawsuit. "So, in that sense ... they have the upper hand in being able to acquire the property so long as it's for public use, and what constitutes public use is pretty expansively defined in Tennessee. ... Courts are very hesitant to look behind the determination of the condemner to decide whether or not it's a 'public use.'"
Andrew Byrd believes the land seizure creates a problem for the entire community, not just their singular property.
“Our neighbors are upset,” he said. “Our neighbors don’t want to see this. If you look at the signs that are up and down the road, you can see that a lot of people do not want to further industrialize Holly Tree Gap Road.”
Milcrofton asserts that development is still necessary.
"Milcrofton has a responsibility to the public in its service area," Jones said. "It would not have filed the condemnation action if this project was not the most responsible choice with the most long-term benefits."