After a marathon six-hour session of public hearings and votes, the Rutherford County Commission has denied a rezoning request from SafeHarbor Holding, stopping plans for Bible Park USA dead in their tracks.
Bible Park USA is a $200 million proposed park featuring biblical retellings and events that SafeHarbor hoped to build on some 282 acres in the Blackman Community, just north of Murfreesboro’s city limits near the corner of Interstates 24 and 840.
Over the past months the entire county has witnessed a rise in emotion and controversy as factions for and against the park formed and became outspoken.
County commissioners actually voted 12-9 in favor of approving the Bible Park zoning, however earlier this month Blackman property owners signed a petition en-mass, requiring a two-thirds majority to approve the park’s plan.
Now that’s democracy in action, as opposed to democratic inaction.
“You know that part of the First Amendment that talks about petitioning the government?” journalism professor and First Amendment specialist Larry Burriss said. “Well, there it was. Residents got a petition going that forced a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority. And, again, everyone had a chance to have their say. And those who were in favor of the park apparently didn’t have enough support to stop the petition drive.”
It was their community’s saving grace. Now Bible Park proponents will have to wait a minimum of 10 months before they will be eligible to reapply for the zoning needed to house their gigantic version of “Six Flags Over Jesus” in Rutherford County.
The park plan has several local fans, including, apparently, more than half of the county commission. Their reasoning was mostly financial. It’s hard to say no to millions of dollars of projected tourism revenue.
In a letter chiding protesters planning a “Honk In” during the county commission meeting, Tom Christy with Community Crossroads called tourism dollars “the least costly to obtain, circulate rapidly into our local economy without us having to add a whole lot more infrastructure.”
He also pointed out that Bible Park USA would bring hundreds of permanent jobs to the area, and called the planned honk-fest “juvenile.”
Tempers flared at the commission meeting, with high emotions on each side of the argument, and a galvanized community pleading with commissioners to take their side.
Bible Park USA spokeswoman Terri Sterling caused quite a stir when she took commissioners Jeff Phillips and Ronald Williams (both eventually voting to approve the rezoning) aside during proceedings to confer with them in private.
Blackman district representatives Steve Sandlin and Trey Gooch (both opposing the rezoning) didn’t take very kindly to Sterling’s interference. Afterwards Sandlin referred to her actions as “shenanigans.” The board’s steering committee is now discussing measures to prevent lobbyists from disrupting the democratic process while the commission is in session.
Murfreesboro Mayor Tommy Bragg has preemptively advised SafeHarbor to look elsewhere for Bible Park USA. If they wish to continue their plans for the Blackman property now, SafeHarbor would have to petition the city of Murfreesboro to annex nearly 300 acres of land. Bragg says it ought not to be attempted.
It is currently unclear what SafeHarbor’s next move will be. Representatives have been closed-mouthed about their plans ever since their defeat at the county commission. Their Web site, bibleparkusa.com, is still up and running, and still names Rutherford County as its prospective home. But it also includes made up words like “edutainment,” so proceed with skepticism.
How They Voted
On May 15 the Rutherford County Commission voted 12-9 in favor of rezoning the land in Blackman for Bible Park USA’s use. However, approval required a two-thirds majority, so the rezoning failed by two votes.
In favor of zoning change: Doug Shafer, Robert Peay, Carol Cook, Gary L. Farley, Ronald Williams, Anthony Johnson, Mike Sparks, Rick Hall, Adam Coggin, Jeff Phillips, Allen McAdoo, Jim Daniel
Opposed: Jack Black, Will Jordan, Joe Frank Jernigan, Steve Sandlin, Jeff Jordan, John Rodgers, Bob Bullen, Joyce Ealy, Trey Gooch