Groups work to preserve rural quality of life
 
2005-02-12
by Lesli Bales-Sherrod
of The Daily Times Staff

Look around: fields, streams, the Smokies ... .
 
If you enjoy the view in Blount County, you're not alone. Citizens
throughout the county are working hard to keep the county rural.
 
Here's a look at four groups of citizens who are taking a stand against
development. They are listed in order of when they were founded.
 
Foothills Land Conservancy
 
An amusement park can bring tourists from all over the world.
 
But in Blount County, stopping the building of one united people all over
the world.
 
The Foothills Land Conservancy, founded in 1985 to stop an amusement park
from being built in Tuckaleechee Cove, now has protected 15,000 acres in the
Foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. And while a bulk of its 1,200
members live in Anderson, Blount and Knox counties, the land trust has
garnered nationwide and worldwide attention, including articles in USA Today
and an entire chapter in a book by a Scottish author.
 
``A lot of people from here who have been away and been educated realize how
special this place is,'' said Executive Director Randy Brown. ``There is a
lot of homegrown `not in my backyard.' Gail Harris (former planning
commissioner) had the foresight to say, `This is just the beginning. Why
don't we form a land trust?'''
 
The conservancy, which opened a full-time office in 1992, tries to educate
people about the need for the preservation of open space other than just
that in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
 
``Open space means cleaner air, less crime and lower taxes,'' Brown insists.
``Farms don't use services like subdivisions do. Cows don't go to school or
call 911.''
 
The trust seeks to preserve open space through several means. A big one,
particularly in Blount County, is conservation easements.
 
``That means property owners donate their development rights to us,'' Brown
explained. ``It is the one way a property owner can assure their land will
not be developed after they're gone.''
 
So far, the conservancy has saved 4,376 acres by conservation easements,
including the 1,000-acre Burkhart farm in Blount County.
 
The trust also has purchased more than 6,200 acres in Blount County alone
through monetary donations. And of the acres the conservancy has saved, it
has donated more than 10,000 to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and
the Park.
 
Brown says he is most proud, though, of the views from the Foothills Parkway
that the group has been able to preserve.
 
``The second best view, in my opinion, could have been developed, so I can't
say enough about the foresight and the generosity of the people of West
Millers Cove,'' Brown said.
 
This year Brown's goal is to set aside at least 1,500 more acres.
 
``We will be working on another major easement, to be finished by the end of
the year probably, that will preserve another important, scenic landmark in
Blount County,'' he teased.
 
The conservancy also will be studying ways to develop a ``steady and stable
means'' of raising operating funds. To that end, the trust has established a
cell phone and printer cartridge recycling program that volunteers will run.
 
But Brown says he likes his job so much, he'd do it for free if he could
afford to.
 
``This place is so nice; why can't we just put up a gate at every county
line?'' Brown asked. ``But people are beginning to see that there's more to
life than malls and interstates, and we need to be careful or we will
destroy it.''
 
For more information, please visit www.foothillsland.org.
 
The Raven Society
 
Five years ago, when several Blount County citizens looked around and
decided they didn't like the direction the county was headed, they didn't
get mad.
 
They got organized.
 
The Raven Society is a political action committee that supports candidates
and issues that protect the rural, natural and historical qualities of
Blount County and East Tennessee.
 
``In order to make a difference, you have to work through the political
process,'' explains Chairman J.C. Franklin, a former Blount County
commissioner. ``You have to pick candidates who can make a difference in
what goes on.''
 
The Raven Society, named for Blount County legend Sam Houston, seeks to
maintain the quality of life in Blount County in two ways: by researching
and informing the public about issues and by working to elect officials who
will vote to protect it.
 
``We're not anti-development, but we do think development can be done in
ways that preserve the looks of the county,'' Franklin said. ``(The county)
needs to actually do some planning instead of just accepting what is brought
to them.''
 
One issue The Raven Society has embraced is a proposed interstate --
popularly referred to as the Southern Loop -- that would circle Maryville
and Alcoa.
 
``One of the things we did last year is walk the entire length of the
Southern Loop and talk to people who are living near where the road is going
to go so we can start raising opposition to it before it gets in the
planning stages,'' Franklin noted. ``We only found one person during that
walk that was in favor of it -- and he works for the state highway
department!''
 
The Raven Society also held a number of seminars on county government, which
Franklin and fellow former county commissioner Steve Samples led. The
seminars, Franklin added, were well received.
 
``We just wanted to make people aware of how government should operate in
case there are members who are interested in running for office,'' Franklin
said. ``That way they'll know what they're running for.''
 
With local elections coming up next year, The Raven Society will work this
year on finding candidates for office and evaluating current officeholders
to see who the group would like to support.
 
``It's a hard job, balancing development needs with how the people feel,''
Franklin admits. ``It's a kind of tightrope you're walking.''
 
The Raven Society already has gotten involved with the political process in
Alcoa and Maryville as well as elections for Blount County School Board,
holding ``meet-the-candidate'' receptions during those elections.
 
``While we didn't elect to actively support candidates in the city or school
board campaigns, it has worked out good for us so far in that the Maryville
City Council has been receptive when we've had concerns and have had members
who have gone before them,'' Franklin said.
 
The board does its planning at meetings held the third Monday of each month.
Members of The Raven Society -- of which Franklin estimates there are more
than 100 -- are welcome to attend.
 
``We look at things that need our immediate attention, which is usually
something coming before the County Commission,'' Franklin explained.
 
For more information on The Raven Society, please visit
www.theravensociety.com.
 
Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension
 
No one was getting any answers.
 
When Blount County residents heard the Tennessee Department of
Transportation was proposing a 4.4-mile extension of Interstate 140 between
Highway 33 and U.S. 321, they had a lot of questions they couldn't find the
answers to. Thus was born Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway
Extension, popularly referred to as CAPPE.
 
``We formed a group thinking if we went about it more systematically, we
would be able to get more information,'' said Nina Gregg, chair of CAPPE's
communication committee.
 
The entirely volunteer organization -- which includes some 200 people from
all over Blount County, not just those whose property would be affected --
was founded in early 2002 and, by June of that year, had filed a lawsuit
against the state.
 
``We discovered there was a serious flaw in the planning of the highway,''
Gregg explained. ``The research required by federal legislation hadn't been
done, and the only way for us to make that point was through a lawsuit.''
 
Although the state had done an Environmental Assessment, they had not done
an Environmental Impact Statement. CAPPE sought a preliminary injunction to
stop construction on the extension until the court had decided whether an
EIS was needed.
 
``There was no research documenting the need and the impact,'' Gregg said.
``Need is still an open question.''
 
That's because when the extension was first proposed in 1986, the rationale
was to improve access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gregg
explains. Since then, however, four-lane roads to the mountains have been
built through Lenoir City, Sevierville and Townsend, she said.
 
``So the rationale became to alleviate traffic congestion in Maryville and
Alcoa, and more recently, we have heard the rationale is economic
development in the eastern part of the county,'' Gregg noted. ``The
rationale has shifted over time, so our question is, `What is the need and
can it be demonstrated?'''
 
CAPPE made its case. The injunction was issued on July 17, 2002, and on
Sept. 28, 2003, TDOT agreed to do an EIS, although it has not yet been
started.
 
``It is unfortunate we had to file a lawsuit to compel TDOT to do what
federal government required them to do,'' Gregg said. ``While the EA has
been withdrawn and no longer exists as an official document, it remains to
be seen what the EIS will tell us.''
 
CAPPE hopes the state will choose ``no build'' and instead consider
alternatives.
 
``There are certain roads that could be widened and some that could be
three-laned instead of overbuilding an interstate highway,'' Gregg
explained. ``They should do the study, collect the data and let the data
inform their decision, not use it to justify a decision they've already
made.''
 
In the meantime, CAPPE continues to hold meetings the second and fourth
Monday of each month to educate citizens about the relationships between
local, state and federal government in transportation planning. CAPPE also
holds two fund-raisers a year to raise money for the group's legal expenses.
 
``I think we've contributed to civic engagement in that individuals have
gotten more involved in the growth and planning of Blount County,'' Gregg
said. ``Our mission is to educate people about issues, and as the (EIS)
process continues to unfold, we will continue to learn and share what we've
learned with people in the community.''
 
For more information on CAPPE, please visit www.saveitdontpaveit.org.
 
East Millers Cove Agricultural District
 
Sometimes neighbors take matters into their own hands.
 
That's what happened in East Millers Cove when Mike Cook started talking to
the property owners around him last June about forming an agricultural
district.
 
``With development pressures the way they are today, I felt like if anything
was going to be saved, it was going to have to come from the private sector
and people working as communities,'' Cook explained.
 
It wasn't hard for Cook to convince his neighbors to sign on to the idea of
an agricultural district.
 
``Most everyone in the community knows everybody, and we're all
agriculturally minded and open-space minded,'' Cook said. ``We want to keep
it like that.''
 
To create an agricultural district, Cook had to find property owners with at
least 15 acres each whose properties touched. A minimum of 45 acres was
needed.
 
Cook found 15 property owners with some 720 acres instead.
 
``There are still some more than can be added into it if people want to,''
Cook added.
 
With the paperwork completed and submitted to Nashville, the agricultural
district received their certificates from the state at a meeting Jan. 31.
There they also learned about state programs on erosion control, forestry,
stream-crossings for cattle and wildlife habitats, among others.
 
``This doesn't prevent development, but it makes a statement,'' Cook said.
``And it doesn't cost anything other than the signs.''
 
Signs announcing the entrance into the agricultural district were bought
with money donated by the property owners and will be placed at the
intersection of Martin Valley and East Millers Cove roads and at the second
entrance to Loop Road on East Millers Cove Road.
 
``We're looking at this as a long-range thing,'' Cook noted. ``We want to
keep this area green to keep it from development.''
 
And development is hard to resist when the value of farmland is at its
highest since 1986, according to Cook.
 
``It puts more pressure on landowners to sell and on people who want to go
into farming,'' Cook said. ``But we enjoy this type of life and want to keep
it like that.''
 
All materials Copyright 2004 Horvitz Newspapers.