JASPER, Tenn. — Some residents of the mountaintop community of Jasper Highlands are upset with developer John "Thunder" Thornton, saying his company is using heavy-handed tactics in business disputes.
James and Shirley Long said Friday that a Thornton company has cut off their internet service and sought to ban them from the common areas of Jasper Highlands under threat of arrest. Also, the company tried court action to keep them from speaking badly about the project, they said.
The lawsuit involving JHH and James and Shirley Long is slated to be heard in Marion County in June 2019.
But Thornton said the couple owes his company $27,700 after building their house and have refused to pay. His company, JHH LLC, sued the Longs in Marion County Chancery Court in January.
"It's not an insignificant amount," he said Friday after a court hearing related to the suit.
Dane Bradshaw, president of Thunder Enterprises, added that Jasper Highlands has dealt with about 1,300 people since the start of the development and had few disputes.
Still, another couple building a home in the development, Robert and Cheryl Schlenkert, said they're involved in a disagreement with Thornton's company over a builder's fee. On Friday, they offered an email from Bradshaw in which he talked about not providing internet service.
Bradshaw said in the email that "if we feel someone owes us funds or has wronged us that we aren't motivated to provide internet as Dish is another option."
Cheryl Schlenkert said there are others who live in the development who are unhappy about the builder's fee but afraid to speak out.
In January, Thornton company JHH LLC brought the suit against the Longs, saying there was a contract price of $685,000 for construction of their house, though the price was later increased by change orders and overages on allowances.
"JHH has performed all of its obligations under the contract with the exception of certain inconsequential punch list items," the suit said, adding the Longs refused to pay the remaining amount of $27,727.
But the Longs denied the allegations and countersued, saying that JHH failed to and refuses to complete the home's construction. James Long said that JHH provided materials, such as kitchen countertops, which didn't meet the quality to which was agreed.
Also, JHH hasn't made requested repairs under a one-year warranty, the counterclaim said.
At Friday's court hearing, the Long's attorney, Jared Smith, said his clients' internet and phone service were severed, though phone was later restored. He said a Thornton company operates the internet service.
Also, Smith said Thornton warned that if the Longs came on the development's common property, "they'll be arrested."
"To threaten them with arrest is nothing more than bullying tactics," he said.
Long said she didn't say anthing that wasn't the truth.
Smith said the company's effort to stop derogatory remarks is "afoul of First Amendment rights. It's like a gag order. They have a right to talk."
However, JHH attorney Bill Pemerton said that after the company finished construction, the Longs withheld "the last draw," referring to the $27,700.
Pemerton also said that a separate company, not JHH, owns the internet company and it's "a totally different entity."
In addition, he said, Jasper Highlands' covenants say that if money is owed to the developer, there's a right to withhold access to common areas. Additionally, Pemerton said, the internet company is permitted to cut off services.
"We provided written notice and the service was terminated," he said, adding that there is other internet service companies available to the Longs.
Pemerton said the request to stop the Longs' remarks was made because those have been "very disparaging" and that the comments are in dispute.
Chancellor Melissa T. Blevins said the internet service is offered by a company different than JHH, and she declined to rule on Friday on that issue. But she said she'd permit the Longs' attorney to amend the complaint to include that company.
The chancellor did rule that trying to keep the Longs from speaking about the company was inappropriate and denied JHH's request.
In terms of access to common property, Shirley Long testified she uses a park area and a pavilion, but hasn't utilized tennis courts or a pool. The chancellor ruled she could access the park and pavilion, but not the courts or pool.
The chancellor said plans are for the full lawsuit to be heard next June.
Thornton said earlier this year that after investing $55 million building roads, utilities, parks and even a fire hall, his dream of building one of Tennessee's biggest mountaintop communities is taking shape and growing.
He said then that more than 500 residential lots atop Jasper Mountain have been sold and nearly 100 homes are either built or being constructed in the gated community.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.