By Jonathan Pleasant
The Doe Mountain Recreation Authority held their first public hearing at a special meeting in the Johnson County Health Department annex last week. Making some bold and often split decisions, the hearing signified one of the last steps necessary to set a clear opening date. Adopting a set of rules compiled from other state departments including the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, as well as the Wildlife Resources Agency, Administration Committee Chairman Richard Strang opened the floor to any public comments.
Only two speakers came forward, one a resident adjacent to the mountain who was concerned about noise abatement for ATVs and OHVs as well as spark arrestors to reduce the possibility of fire. The second speaker had a list of small suggestions, ranging from the need to have a clearly defined park manager or other official, to questions of whether concealed carry permits would be viable for firearms on the mountain. There were also concerns about the permanency of the rules considering that the DMRA is still working on a master plan for the project.
Following the comments, DMRA attorney Mona Alderson gave a brief overview of the rules and began a discussion with the board concerning those items identified by the public. The debate of whether or not to allow hunting on the property set the pace for the concealed carry problem. Initially the board had decided that hunting would not be allowed at this time, however, as the meeting progressed the issue was looked at in more depth.
Focusing on concealed carry specifically, Alderson felt that the mountain would be considered state property and thus in her legal opinion would have to allow any firearm permit granted by the state. As a result, the board took action to change the wording of one rule to state that there should be no illegal possession of firearms on the property.
Addressing the noise concern, board member Mike Farmer confirmed that the mountains user agreement sets a 96-decibel limit and does require the use of spark arrestors. Further, Farmer stated that the Mountain Trail Riders Association will be receiving a grant to purchase a sound testing kit to check and enforce the rule.
There were other discussions held to look at potential designations for officials to be present on the mountain, including commissioner, assistant commissioner, and park manager. Yet, while Alderson acknowledged that the board would have to begin the process of finding a suitable position, enforcement of the rules would have to be established. Already the board has the authority to remove a violator from the property, but actual criminal enforcement of applicable state laws would likely fall to the sheriffs department.
With these few problems addressed, Alderson explained the rule-making process, noting that although the board was hoping to issue abbreviated emergency rules, the states Attorney General declined the request, requiring the full rule-making process. One of the guidelines is that the adopted rules must be posted through the state for 180 days, meaning that at the very earliest the board would have the rules in place by early November.
Concerned about having to wait so long, several members questioned the authoritys ability to approve an opening without having the rules finalized. Alderson stated that she had been in touch with the AGs office, and that the DMRA does have rights as property owners, but that she was not completely sure of the authoritys liability. Alderson went on to say that the AG had recommended waiting to open until the rules were finalized, but that if the board did decide to proceed, the two biggest options to ensure their legal protection would be to either acquire insurance or wait for a clear answer from the AG of whether the board is already covered through the state as a state entity.
Waiting for the rules to finalize would put the DMRA in a better position to handle claims that might arise from injury or accident through the longstanding process established by the TN Claims Commission. However, Alderson also pointed out that the board does already have certain rights and may already be protected. Citing the amount of time it has taken to reach this point, Mountain City Mayor Lawrence Keeble expressed his concern about waiting, and went ahead with a motion to set an opening date for Labor Day Weekend on August 31st. While several other members voiced their approval for this action, there was also a general sense of caution about the liability issue, leading board member Frank Arnold to ask Keeble to amend the motion to include the fact that the opening would be dependent on having the litigation issue resolved.
Keeble consented that this would be a wise idea, but several board members still were concerned about going against a direct recommendation from the state Attorney General. As a result the vote was split, narrowly passing eight to seven with three abstaining. Now with a clear opening date in mind, Keeble went on to further express his concerns about the need to allow hunting this year as well. Initially a part of his motion to open, the mayor eventually moved to follow TWRA guidelines and allow open hunting on the mountain.
Debate quickly arose, with several members voicing their opposition because the DMRAs TWRA representative was not present to give his opinions. Regardless, Keeble was not alone in supporting the use of the property for hunting purposes and the board held a lengthy conversation on potential provisions. One of the big debates involved informing the non-hunting public that during open season they would have to wear the required blaze orange as well, regardless of whether they were hiking, horseback riding, or biking.
There was also a discussion of fees and whether to charge for hunting as a separate use. However, the board seemed to feel that hunters would only need to purchase a general permit, either for hiking or ATV use depending on how they planned to access the mountain. Even with this resolved, some members voiced fears about opening without having the master plan in place, noting that hunting may be designated to specific areas depending on the various seasons. These questions and others remained unanswered, although it was noted that the board has several weeks to work out the specific details.
With this time frame in mind, Keeble went ahead with his second motion to allow hunting pursuant to TWRA rules and guidelines. Once again the vote was split, with eight voting for and six against. With the successful approval, the DMRA will now set to work finalizing their hunting policy in the months before the fall deer season, bearing in mind that some things may change as the master plan is completed.
Secretary Gabby Lynch informed the board that the master planning process was one step closer to completion with a final selection of a firm to create the document. After a lengthy grading process among the top proposals, the board chose Farmer-Morgan from Nashville, to put the DMRAs plan together. Ben Farmer, one of the firms top representatives, was on hand to give the board a presentation of what the company intends to do, including several public input workshops. Farmer went on to provide a timeline, which indicated that it could be late fall before enough research is conducted to put the plan together.
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.
By Jonathan Pleasant