published Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Mountaintop appeal: Jasper Mountain development takes shape in Marion County

John "Thunder" Thornton stands atop one of the many bluff lots at Jasper Highlands in Marion County, Tenn.
John "Thunder" Thornton stands atop one of the many bluff lots at Jasper Highlands in Marion County, Tenn.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Project at a glance

Name: Jasper Highlands

Location: Jasper Mountain in Marion County

Size: 8,893 acres bought or optioned, including 21.3 miles of bluff frontage

Typical lot size: 1 to 12 acres

Developer: Thunder Enterprises, owned by Chattanooga developer John "Thunder" Thornton

Status: 98 lots sold in the 250-acre phase one; 110 more now being developed in the second phase, which includes 310 acres

Price range for homesites: $29,900 to $450,000

Development schedule for entire project: 10 to 12 years

Amenities: Gated community, miles of trails along mountains, waterfalls and wooded areas, community garden, tennis, basketball, soccer and boccie courts, open air pavilion for residents.

Online: Read more about developer Thunder Thornton in the January issue of Edge magazine at www.meetsforbusiness.com.

KIMBALL, Tenn. — As a long-time federal employee specializing in national security, David Jarrell prides himself on thoroughly assessing the costs and risks of each move. So when Jarrell and his wife Trish began to plan for their future retirement home, Jarrell weighed his options carefully before deciding that East Tennessee offered the best combination of climate, cost, culture, safety and location of any place in America. After six weeks of trips to the region last spring, the Jarrells decided to build their dream home on a new development taking shape here atop Jasper Mountain where Jarrell estimates the cost of living will be at least 30 percent below that at his home in Virginia.

The parcel the Jarrells bought last year faces west off the top of Jasper Mountain, overlooking the ridges of the Cumberland Plateau, and "has one of the most beautiful sunset views anywhere." The site in the developing Jasper Highlands is located just a half hour drive from the amenities of Chattanooga and only a two hour drive to Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham or Knoxville.

"Virginia was a great place to raise our three children, but my wife and I were looking for something different in our retirement years and I looked at every variable that I could in deciding where to move when we retire," Jarrell said.

The Jarrells are among the first 100 or so buyers into what ultimately is planned to be one of the biggest residential developments in the region. Jasper Highlands could ultimately be home to thousands of relocating retirees and Chattanooga area workers and families as it develops over the next decade or two.

Chattanooga developer John "Thunder" Thornton acquired nearly 4,500 acres and optioned more than 4,000 other acres on Jasper Mountain in January 2008 before the housing slump undermined the market for most resort properties.

Other major rural developments proposed during that era, including Rarity Cub and Sequatchie Pointe here in Marion County, stalled and were ultimately foreclosed upon before the promised roads and amenities were ever delivered for early buyers who bought into such projects.

The recession also forced Thornton to slow down his original building plans and scale back his ambitious projects elsewhere in the country. But the Chattanooga developer has still invested more than $20 million to buy the property and build roads and other amenities for Jasper Highlands -- all before the first house is even occupied in the mountaintop development.

Thornton acknowledges it will likely be years before he gets his money back, but he insists he is in the project for the long haul.

"It's probably a 10- to 12-year-project," Thornton said. "We're not in a race. We are committed to doing it right."

Thornton sold out the first 98-lot phase last July and launched sales of a second 110-lot phase last fall.

Thornton, who has developed other major residential and resort projects in eight states, is focusing these days on Marion County with Jasper Highlands and his nearby Ridges on Franklin. Although Thornton has sold millions of dollars of property in Wyoming, Hawaii, North Carolina and high-end golf course and vacation spots across the country, Thornton insists his Jasper Highlands "offers as beautiful of sites of any project I have done."

Jasper Mountain has previously been used for paper pulp and lumber for Bowater and American Tinberlands Co. But Thornton saw a richer potential from the plateau if a quicker route could be cut to the top of the mountain from nearby Interstate 24 and Kimball.

Marion County Mayor: John Graham is glad to have the national developer focused on his county.

"Our climate, taxes and cost of living should attract a lot more retirees and I think what John Thornton has done at Jasper Highlands will be a great addition to our county," Graham said.

The key to tapping the residential potential of Jasper Mountain, Thornton says, was to find a quicker and better route up Jasper Mountain from Kimball or other sites near Interstate 24.

Thornton bought a 224-acre tract on the site of the mountain and hired Geotechnical Engineers in Chattanooga to figure out a plan to blast through the rock and build a thoroughfare to allow cars to get and up down the mountain from Kimball to the plateau top in five or six minutes.

The new route extends a public road that was built 25 years ago, which ran up only about a third of the elevation. Thornton bought a 220-ace tract to access the top. Geotech Engineers has built the multi-million-dollar road up the mountain.

"The ease of access and proximity to I-24 and Chattanooga was paramount for this deal," Thornton says. "We just had to do it."

Atop Jasper Mountain and the Cumberland Plateau, Jasper Highlands includes more than 21 miles of bluff-front property, much of its overlooking the Tennessee River and Nickajack Reservoir. But even with its rural, scenic views, the new road up the mountain allows homeowners in Jasper Highlands to be able to get to grocery, hardware and other retail outlets in Kimball in only six minutes -- and reach downtown Chattanooga within a half hour's drive.

Under an agreement with the Marion County planning commission, the second phase of Jasper Highlands couldn't be started until there was "substantial completion" of the first phase and its road network. To start roads for the next phase, the developers had to post a bond worth 150 percent of the projected cost of the road to ensure that the road up the mountain was completed.

"The weather just killed us," said Dane Bradshaw, president of Thunder Enterprises. "We could sell in the rain, but we couldn't build the road some days in the rain."

The road was finally completed and the second phase lots were platted last September. The developers are installing underground utilities a top the mountain and are extending new roads water service under an agreement with South Pittsburg Board of Water Works & Sewers.

The first house in Jasper Highlands is nearing completion and many Bradshaw said he expects 20 or so houses should be built on Jasper Highlands this year, along with most of the lots in the second phase of the development. Many of those buying are nearing retirement and are planning to build their homes in coming years when the relocate to the project.

John and Sara Roth, who lived in a rural home near Green Bay, Wisc., for most of their career, bought a lot at Jasper Highlands last year near where their brother-in-law and sister also have bought a lot. Roth said he expects to break ground on his home by next summer.

"We looked all over the Carolinas and Tennessee for our retirement home, but when we saw this lot in Jasper Highlands, we just said "Wow," this is it," he said. "Climate and taxes is what brought us to Tennessee but this project seemed to have the right mix of natural attraction and proximity to other activities."

Jerrell hopes to begin construction on his retirement home in the next year or two and ultimately move to the house once he retires from the federal government and sells his 7,000-square-foot home in the Washington D.C. suburb of Woodbridge, Va.

"We believe in this vision and couldn't be more thrilled to be moving into this project," Jerrell said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-634

about Dave Flessner...

Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...

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