Nashville developer John Rochford has 850 acres surrounded by the Natchez Trace Parkway under contract, with plans for a development that would cost more than $1 billion and be built over the next two decades.
The community, dubbed Stephens Valley, is expected to include up to 1,400 custom homes. The commercial section that will front The Loveless Cafe along Highway 100 would include restaurant, space and office space, plus an 85- to 100-room boutique hotel.
Rochford expects to complete the purchase of the first 150 acres from the Stephens family within the next 18 months. He's seeking input from planning officials in Davidson and Williamson counties and other area stakeholders to guide development of a master plan for the property.
"This land is at the front door to the Trace, so how this develops is important to millions of people because what happens there really impacts all of the visitors to the Natchez Trace," said Rochford, president of Nashville-based Rochford Realty and Construction Co.
The property lies in a valley on three sides of the Natchez Trace Parkway, with frontage on Highway 100 and Pasquo, Union Bridge and Sneed roads. That area has been identified as one of the most vulnerable "viewsheds" on the Tennessee side of the Natchez Trace Parkway, based on The Land Trust for Tennessee and National Park Service's analysis of what's visible from that designated national scenic trail.
"When you have a valley like that, that's really low, it could allow for the perfect storm of viewshed gone wrong if we didn't have a thoughtful developer," said Aubrey Preston, a preservation advocate in Williamson County. "In a perfect world, we'd love it if none of that property is developed, but the property is going to be developed by somebody. That being the case, it's nice to have a developer that's coming to the table with a good attitude about preservation. Of course, the devil is in the details as to what actually would happen."
Under Rochford's plans, 450 acres would be open space, with seven miles of trails through the hills connected to the Natchez Trace Parkway for community use. Density would be greater in the valley surrounded by 19 hills to make the project financially viable, he said, citing plans to develop some estate lots of up to five acres to reduce density near the Trace.
Rochford sees Stephens Valley helping to address the need for more residential lots to meet increased demand for residences as Nashville grows. "This will truly be a live, work and play community and will be the next step in an unfolding master plan," he said about Stephens Valley.
Over the next five years, 64,400 lots would have to be developed in the 11-county Nashville region to ensure adequate supply, said Edsel Charles, chairman of MarketGraphics Research Group of Nashville, a new home market research firm. "Williamson County needs the lots really bad," he said. "You would have a hard time making a mistake on land development in Williamson County. Most everything works."
Rochford plans to work with at least six builders that will build the 17 types of custom homes planned at Stephens Valley, which are expected to range in price from $400,000 to $5 million. The target market include seniors, empty nesters and young families attracted by Williamson County schools. Roughly 90 percent of the property is in Williamson, with the remainder in Davidson County.
Development is expected to occur in phases, starting with about 100 homes that would front on Union Bridge and Sneed roads. Another 100 homes and a $7 million amenities center, to include swimming pools, tennis and volleyball courts and a country barn, will be in the second phase. The community would be connected by sidewalks and trails, giving residents access to amenities without having to drive, Rochford said.
"We're considered a very bankable company, and financing is not a problem at all," he said. "The project will not be highly leveraged so that we stay in the safe range should the market require a pause."
The Williamson County portion of the property is zoned suburban infill and conservation, which allows for a maximum density of 1.2 units per acre. On the Davidson County side, plans for the hotel and spaces for offices, restaurants and retail have been approved, Rochford said.
The property he has under contract for Stephens Valley is near where Murfreesboro-based National HealthCare Corp. bought a 17-acre tract at Highway 100 and Pasquo Road. The company plans to build a 90-bed skilled nursing facility, with future plans for an assisted living facility.
Land Innovations LLC, an affiliate of Brentwood-based CPS Land, led by President Dudley Smith, is project manager for Rochford's planned development. Alan Thompson of Ragan-Smith is the engineer for Stephens Valley.
Rochford isn't a stranger to the area where Stephens Valley is planned, having developed the nearby Temple Hills residential community over the past 25 years. But his latest project faces greater scrutiny because of its proximity to a portion of the 444-mile parkway regarded as a national treasure.
"It's no question one of the premier assets of our region," said Jeanie Nelson, executive director of The Land Trust, which has protected 10 properties within the parkway's viewshed. "I don't think it's an overstatement to say what a really critical part of our landscape it is — not to mention our economy. It's a serious economic and cultural character attraction for our area."
Todd Kaestner, a Williamson County commissioner, shares concerns about the overall density of the project and potential financial burdens, including creating a need to build more schools. "We'll have to wait and see what the final plans looks like," he said. "Whatever happens there needs to be sensitive to preserving that viewshed."
Rochford believes there's not a better piece of land in the Nashville region than the property under contract, which he had once sought to buy before the Great Recession. "A lot of people think it is location; John Rochford says it's timing that's everything," he recalled about a lesson he learned from his friend Dr. Thomas F. Frist Sr. "Sensitivity to the environment is our No. 1 goal."
About the Stephens Valley site
The Stephens family has owned the land since 1930. It has served as a farm for 75 years. In the past, portions of the family's farm were sold to create nearby communities, including Traceside. About 50 years ago, the family conveyed the property to a trust so that assets from development of the farm could be used for evangelical work. Now in his 90s without heirs, Bill Stephens is looking to sell the remaining property over the next 20-plus years, including to Rochford.