Doe Mountain project moving forward
By Jonathan PleasantThe Doe Mountain Recreation Authority (DMRA) held their first county meeting at the Johnson County Crewette building last Tuesday. The meeting itself was rather brief compared to several past monthly sessions at the First Tennessee Development district in Johnson City, but there were still many important issues that were covered.
Possibly the biggest accomplishments of the day involved the board’s Administration Committee, which had three specific items that they focused on. The first of these was the adoption of a formal user agreement that will be used as the DMRA gets closer to a soft opening for the mountain. Introduced by Chairman Richard Strang, the agreement will basically act as a permit, with a fee schedule based on the type of use. Having discussed the document for the past couple of months, Strang confirmed that there was just a handful of changes that needed to be discussed, which he went over individually.
One of the most contentious items was the board’s current stance on hunting, which will undoubtedly play a big role in the mountain’s future. However, without a master plan in place, there have been concerns about what the board should allow or not allow during this early phase. Having talked about the issue at length last month, Strang explained that the administration committee revised the wording of the agreement per the direction of the board, which now reads that “hunting will not be allowed at this time.” Several members of the board, including Mayor Lawrence Keeble, reiterated that this decision is just for the time being and the DMRA does plan on allowing hunting in the future, going so far as to put the issue on the agenda next month as a specific discussion point. The other restriction addressed concerned opening and closing hours which the agreement now says will be publicly posted and set at the discretion of the board, as well as the status of camping.
Like hunting, camping will certainly be allowed at some point in the future, but for the purposes of the soft opening, it too will be restricted at this time. The last couple of changes to the agreement dealt with motorized vehicles, which will require a helmet for riders under 18, but while recommended, will leave the option open to older riders.
Strang noted that a copy of all the changes had been sent to each individual member of the board, and with all of these various issues resolved, county commissioner Jerry Grindstaff made the motion to approve the document, which was seconded by Ray Stout and passed unanimously. Now one step closer to an opening, Mona Alderson, the DMRA’s current pro bono attorney led the discussion concerning the organization’s emergency rules which will also have to be put into place before allowing the public onto the property.
The emergency rules will be a temporary placeholder, while the board goes through the lengthy process of adopting a formal set of rules through the state. Whereas the permanent rules require roughly 180 days including public notice and a public hearing, emergency rules can established by the board and approved by the State Attorney General in the mean time.
Most of the rules that board has been looking at came directly from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) with a few inputs from the TWRA and the board itself. Most of the exceptions involved regulations on off highway vehicles (OHV) which are not normally encouraged under TDEC. The emergency rules will not be as broad as the permanent rules, and will be limited to issues dealing directly with public safety.
According to Alderson most of the document refers directly back to TDEC’s guidelines for public lands, with OHV uses tracking the board’s user agreement, while leaving hunting up to the discretion of the DMRA and following TWRA rules. The emergency rules also say that the DMRA is directly responsible for setting fees, issuing passes, and determining types of use. There is also a provision to remove violators from the property if necessary.
With the emergency rules drafted, Alderson asked for a motion of approval, allowing her to send the document on to the attorney general. Additionally, a public rule-making hearing date needed to be set up, which was decided to be held in concurrence with the board’s monthly meeting on July 9th. Following the state’s requirements the hearing will be publically advertised as well.
Having covered the rule making process at length, Alderson asked for a series of motions that each passed with full consent. The first of these was to officially adopt the emergency rules as proposed, while the second motion gave the administration committee authority to deal with the attorney general on any problems that might arise. The final motion was to formally file a notice for the rule-making hearing.
With both the user agreement and the board’s emergency rules underway, the last item that Strang brought up was the DMRA’s financial structure. With no money currently, but several grants possible in the future, the board must decide how best to manage their finances and provide for accurate and reliable accounting. Without funding to hire their own finance director, the best option left to the board is to enter an agreement with the county to handle their financial structure as a separate area of the county’s own department. This was the suggestion made by Mark Treece with the State’s Comptroller’s office. Once permits and other sources of funding begin coming in, eventually the DMRA should be able to handle their own finances, but for the time being will utilize Johnson County’s Accounts and Budget Director Peggy Horne. DMRA secretary Gabby Lynch would be working alongside Horne, as well as Sue Hensley in the county trustee’s office and would be informed of any changes as they are made. One of the biggest benefits Treece noted was that this setup would allow the DMRA to be audited alongside the county and, with no other real options currently available, would be the board’s best course of action.
Although the proposal received the full blessing of the state, several members of the board still voiced their desire to see a formal agreement between the two entities, hoping for a formal resolution from the County Commission as well. While working closely together, all DMRA monies would be kept completely separate from the county’s.
Johnson County Mayor and DMRA Chairman Larry Potter made an announcement that the board had successful submitted an application for a $200,000 Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grant. Money for this program comes from the federal gas tax, and specifically from OHVs and ATVs. The money is divided up among all 50 states with Tennessee receiving over $1,000,000. Bob Richardson, who helps oversee Tennessee’s grants as a part of TDEC, was present at the meeting to discuss the board’s application.
One of 25 across the state, each proposal is ranked against a 100 point scale based on a variety of criteria. Grant money can be used for improvement projects, such as the construction of public restrooms, or for trail construction which is a big need on Doe Mountain. There is a $50,000 match to the grant, but much of this can be overcome with in-kind labor. Richardson must inspect each proposed project, which he did following the meeting. In fact, as the first time the meetings have been held in Johnson County, many board members got their first opportunity to survey the mountain for themselves, gathering at the Harbin Hill Visitors Center following the meeting and riding to several notable spots including the fire tower and Chimney Rock.
However, this was not until several other issues were resolved, including an application for another potential grant, this time from the USDA. A smaller grant in the amount of $15-20,000, secretary Gabby Lynch explained would be used strictly for the master planning process which is ongoing. TDEC commissioner and DMRA board member Brock Hill stated that he had successfully worked with these types of grants before and would be more than willing to help Lynch out in the application process. Hill went on to make a motion to approve Lynch’s efforts to secure the funding which was seconded by Ray Stout and approved unanimously.
Speaking about the master plan, Lynch also confirmed that the request for proposals (RFP) had been sent out to the public, and that she fully expected a considerable turnout, noting that there had already been numerous calls ranging from local all the way up to international firms. Expecting a dozen proposals or more, Lynch stated that the Master Planning Committee would review all submissions and bring the top two or three to the full board for their consideration at the June meeting.
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