Panel votes to explore new trail project

Published 9:37 am Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Planning Commission

Members of the Carter County Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend the county research the development of a trail project using county-owned rights of way along the old East Tennessee and Western North Carolina railroad line.

During the group’s meeting Tuesday, Planning Director Chris Scheuttler gave a presentation on the feasibility of such a project, which he said the county first considered more than a decade ago. An engineer from Tysinger, Hampton and Partners drew up a preliminary plan for the trail in 2001.

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Carter County owns about 6 miles of potential trails, Scheuttler said. Those properties and rights of way are located between Hampton and Roan Mountain and are managed by the Carter Highway Department and the County Commission, he added.

The county needs to look toward the future as well as at current needs, Scheuttler said, adding one of the things to be considered is economic development.

“There are many types of industries,” he said, adding that the days of factories are fading. “Tourism is an industry.”

Carter County already supports a variety of tourism activities such as hiking, fishing, horseback riding, white water rafting, kayaking, bicycle riding and nature watching, Scheuttler said.

“It is unbelievable what is here and what we can draw people into, but if you go on the Carter County website, you can’t find it,” he said. “I did a lot of studying, and things that should have been easy to find for Carter County were not.”

In addition to getting the word out about what is here, Scheuttler said the county should look at developing new ways to bring tourists into the county. The average individual who comes in and spends one night in Carter County deposits more than $42 in taxes into the county coffers, not counting how much money they put into the local economy by buying goods and services, he said.

One way to draw tourists in would be to develop the trail project, Scheuttler said, adding he refers to it as the Tweetsie/Overmountain Victory Trail because not only does it follow the old railroad line, it also in places follows the route taken by the settlers as they marched over the mountain to the Battle of Kings Mountain during the American Revolution.

Historic tourism already brings visitors and money into the county through the interpretive programs and history presentations at Sycamore Shoals State Park, Scheuttler said. The National Park Service has the Overmountain Victory Trail motor route, which is a national historic trail that runs through a large portion of Carter County. Developing the proposed trail route would allow the county to not only take advantage of the tourism opportunities but to also preserve history at the same time.

While the county does own the property and rights of way the trail will sit on, the trail will also border private properties, Scheuttler said. “We must maintain the security of the private property,” he said, adding that signs should be posted asking trail users to respect the rights of the property owners and not trespass.

Part of the trail would also run along Old Railroad Grade Road in Roan Mountain.

“It was an old railroad that was turned over to the county for a roadway,” Scheuttler said, adding there are homes located along the road. “We can’t stop people from using this roadway.”

While the proposed trail borders private property, Schuettler said it also borders a lot of National Forestry Service land as well.

Before the project could begin, several studies and assessments would need to be completed, as well as other obstacles which would need to be addressed, Scheuttler said.

“It would be a dead end trail at this time,” he said.

On the lower end, the trail would run onto private property owned by Doe River Gorge Ministries, which operates a Christian camp in the gorge. On the upper end, the trail would reach an impasse at a collapsed railroad tunnel in the are of Old Railroad Grade Road. At that location, the trail could be taken around the collapsed tunnel, but it would have to go on private property to do so, Scheuttler said.

The county would greatly benefit from the economic boost having such a trail would bring to the Hampton and Roan Mountain communities, Scheuttler said, citing the businesses that have already sprung up alongside the Tweetsie Trail from Johnson City into Elizabethton.

The cost to develop the proposed trail was recently estimated at less than $1,500 per linear mile by Gary Tysinger of Tysinger, Hampton and Partners, Schuettler said.

“That’s a good bang for our buck,” he said, adding the county could pursue grants and partnerships to help offset the costs. “We may have to move ahead for the first little bit on our own without any outside money.”

Planning Commission member Ken Arney voice his support for the proposal and made a motion to recommend the County Commission look into developing the project.

“I think this would be a great opportunity to preserve and be able to gain an economic value here to history that is going to be lost. We have a great opportunity to spend a little to gain a lot,” Arney said. “If we do not take advantage of this to preserve the history that will be forgotten and lost it will be a grave injustice to our forefathers and to our children. It would be a grave injustice to history.”

The motion by Arney passed unanimously on a vote.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, which came after the discussion and vote on the trail proposal, an attorney spoke on behalf of his client opposing the development of the trail.

“It’s going to put an undue burden on the property owners to fence that in to keep people out,” said Mike McKinney, general counsel for Wilderness and Country Properties. While McKinney does not represent Doe River Gorge Ministries, the company he represents supports the Christian camp, he said.

“The entire area in the Doe River Gorge is private property,” McKinney said. “The county’s right of way through there was sold or given away years ago to Doe River Gorge Christian Camp.

“You can’t just have a trail go through an operation like this.”