MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- The owner of Hippie Hill will be allowed to continue offering homeless people a place to seek shelter and receive food as part of a special exception granted by the Rutherford County Board of Zoning Appeals.
During a recent meeting, the zoning board approved a request by Thomas “Hippie Tom” Maddox to establish a campground and provide transient accommodations at Hippie Hill, a 5-acre tract of land on Burks Hollow Road near the Cannon County line.
Hippie Hill, which has operated under the radar of Rutherford County officials for more than a decade, provides transients and homeless people temporary housing and basic necessities.
“We are here to help people who need a place to stay while they get back on their feet,” Maddox said prior to the vote, during a Board of Zoning Appeals meeting held Dec. 11 at the Rutherford County Courthouse in Murfreesboro.
“It has existed without any major problems for years,” he said. “We try to help them out and show them how to do things like find a job and a permanent place to live.”
The land has a holding tank for spring water that is used for drinking and bathing, as well as portable restrooms that are maintained through a vending contract and tents for people to sleep in. In addition, it has a primitive kitchen for visitors to use, he said.
On average, Maddox said there are between eight and 25 people who are there at any given time. Many of the visitors, he said, became homeless because of the Great Recession or are college-aged students who are temporarily “down on their luck.”
Noting that his efforts are designed to keep people from loitering around downtown Murfreesboro and private properties, Maddox said if it were not for Hippie Hill, residents would see “a bunch of these kids running around” aimlessly in the community.
Hippie Hill resident Mike Roberts, who lost his house six years ago due to the recession, pleaded with zoning board members to approve the request, saying it has given him a place to start over.
“These people coming through here are on the streets,” Roberts said. “This gives people a chance, people like me, a place to have a base while they are trying to get back on their feet. ...Without Hippie Hill, I would be in much worse shape than I am today.”
In order to stay at Hippie Hill, however, visitors are required to give back to the makeshift community once they are financially capable.
“All I ask in return is that they donate to Hippie Hill once they leave,” Maddox said, “so that other people can receive help too.”
Although several people expressed support for Maddox, Rutherford County officials said they plan to keep a close eye on Hippie Hill in light of comments made by opponents, several of whom alleged transients have damaged their property throughout the years or brought drugs into the area.
“Stuff keeps happening,” said Eric Hill, a farmer who lives nearby. “They bring dogs that have killed my cattle, and I have found pet shrines and other strange items on my property.”
In response to his comments and other complaints, zoning board member Zane Cantrell promised that Rutherford County officials would follow up with Maddox.
“We will continue to keep this area under surveillance,” said Cantrell, who serves as the chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Prior to voting in support of rezoning Hippie Hill, Cantrell also pointed out that this is just the first step in bringing the property up to code and regulating it for the health and safety of the people who are staying there, as well as nearby residents.
“I have no hesitation for the good they are doing,” Cantrell said. “They are salvaging human beings and helping them, which is what we all need to be about.”
Jerry Sartain, who serves as vice chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeals, and fellow board member Joe Meshotto joined Cantrell in supporting the proposal.
Zoning board members Keith Bratcher, who lives in Lascassas, and Christiana resident Joe Crowell voted against the request.
“I applaud what they are doing out there, trying to help people,” Bratcher said prior to the vote, “but I do have reservations about it, especially when there are sanitation and building issues.”
After the vote, Meshotto said he supported rezoning Hippie Hill as a campground because it will now have to abide by various county regulations, including those regarding building and fire codes.
“Hopefully, we will have some teeth in these regulations that will help control what is going on out there,” Meshotto said, noting he appreciates the concerns expressed by some residents who live near Hippie Hill.
“I think something good can come of this,” he said, “now that it will be regulated.”