This article was originally published on www.timesfreepress.com
KIMBALL, Tenn. - After investing nearly $55 million building roads, utilities, parks and even a fire hall, developer John "Thunder" Thornton's decade-long dream of building one of Tennessee's biggest mountaintop communities is taking shape and growing along the Cumberland Plateau.
More than 500 residential lots atop Jasper Mountain in Marion County have been sold and nearly 100 homes are either built or being constructed in the gated community known as Jasper Highlands.
To meet the growing demand for more home sites, Thornton said last week he is opening the next phase in his nearly 8,893-acre development. The 112-lot addition, Jasper Farms, features secluded bluff views, a variety of wooded lots and natural water features. Lots range from one to seven acres and most are priced from $65,000 to $200,000, although a few choice bluff lots are priced even higher.
As construction crews are still working to extend roads and utilities to the new lots, several properties have already been sold and developers expect that Jasper Farms will be especially appealing to those wanting bigger, more secluded lots. Nearly half of the new lots will feature bluff views overlooking the largely undeveloped Sequatchie Valley and other mountain ridges in and around Jasper Highlands.
"When you walk this property, you notice how quiet and calm it is," Thornton said. "You're surrounded by lush forest. Besides roaring waterfalls, you don't hear anything – not even distant traffic in the valley below."
Jasper Highlands features nearly 100 miles of nature trails, including a "Huff-n-Puff Trail," that connects a number of waterfalls and other natural attractions and offers views of the nearby Tennessee River, Nickajack Lake and surrounding valleys below.
"This newest Jasper Farms phase is a tranquil getaway for families interested in owning a second mountain home with easy access or for anyone looking for a restful primary residence," Thornton said. "But from the base of our mountain, we're still only 25 minutes from Chattanooga and all that Chattanooga has to offer. There just aren't any other developments that I am aware of that offer so much land with such a view in such a great part of the country."
Property owners also have access to the community open air pavilion and a three-story gazebo Thornton refers to as "Gazebodacious" that also includes a swimming pool with lap lanes, tennis courts, pickle ball courts, dog park, green space and children's playground.
Current home owners association dues are $60 per month, although property owners also pay from $5 to $25 a month for fire protection by the volunteer fire department created for the new community.
Building a community
Most of those who have bought lots at Jasper Highlands are seniors in retirement or approaching retirement who plan to make Jasper Highlands their primary residence, Thornton said. Homes built over the past couple of years have ranged in size from 1,450 square feet up to 9,200 square feet with most homes ranging from $300,000 to $500,000 in value so far, although a few have been even higher in price.
"People coming here are all sort of pioneers together in this new development so there are no cliques or groups you've got to break into and that has really helped to build this as a community," said Dane Bradshaw, president of Thunder Enterprises. "We're not just building a development, we're really building a community."
Tax advantages and costs
Buyers are often attracted to East Tennessee from other states by both the natural attractions of mountains, rivers and wooded lands and the cost advantages of lower taxes, cost of living and relatively less expensive housing in Tennessee.
"We find many people moving here from the Northeast or bigger cities in the Midwest are paying less than a fourth as much in property taxes for the same house and, of course, there is no income tax in Tennessee which is a real advantage," Thornton said. "We're creating forever homes here for a huge percentage of our buyers who have never lived in Tennessee before."
The tax advantage of Tennessee has had its costs for Thunder Enterprises, however. The developer had to build more than 23 miles of its own roads, including an 11 percent-grade, two-lane road up Jasper Mountain, to open up the property.
Jasper Highlands built its own parks and trails and also had to create its own water utility, volunteer fire department and a high-speed Internet service to make create what Thornton calls "Gig Mountain."
Thornton acquired Jasper Mountain a decade ago when the land was largely used to grow timber and pulp for Bowater and other paper and lumber companies. At the time, Thornton said he initially paid only about $27,000, or about $3 an acre, in property taxes on the wooded land. Last year, five years after Jasper Highlands was established, property taxes paid by the new home owners, property owners and Thornton had grown to $461,000. Those payments are likely to grow significantly in coming years as more homes are built.
Thornton said he expects all of the lots could be plotted and sold within the next five years. Jasper Highlands, which set aside more than 3,000 acres in a conservation easement and still has another 950 acres to plot and develop, is ultimately expected to include just over 1,500 home sites. The total value of the development, once built out, is likely to top $600 million.
Residents from 38 states
So far, Jasper Highlands has attracted buyers from 38 states and four countries and most of those who have bought lots have relocated from outside of Southeast Tennessee.
Thornton said 70 percent of those who visit Jasper Highlands in person end up signing a contract to buy a lot on their first visit.
Sara Roth of Hilbert, Wis., said she and her husband had been looking at sites in North and South Carolina "but they just didn't have that 'wow factor' like what Jasper Mountain offers."
Doug Olivero and Jane Leonhardt of Northville, Mich., had planned on retiring in Florida before they visited Jasper Highlands.
"We had absolutely no plans of purchasing anything, but wanted to see what Tennessee had to offer," Leonhardt said. "A few hours later, we were standing on this piece of land talking about where we would want to build our houseso our numerous talks about retiring to Florida were brushed aside, and soon we were signing on the 'dotted line.'"
Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or at 757-6340