After failed efforts to make an unorthodox land swap and preserve 175 acres in the process, state officials still are expressing interest in finding another way to make the tract of land that would provide a direct link to the Cumberland Trail available to the public.
According to a letter sent in January to Gov. Phil Bredesen by Signal Mountain resident Sam Powell, private landowner and local attorney Joe Wagner wanted to give the state 175 acres of his undeveloped land just a few hundred feet from Signal Mountain Middle-High School.
But Mr. Wagner could not afford to donate the land outright, so it was suggested that the state give Mr. Wagner about 25 developed acres equal in value that also are close to the school and now are a part of the Prentice Cooper State Forest.
The letter noted that Mr. Wagner wanted to make sure his land would "be preserved and available for future enjoyment by the public."
Staff photo by Allison Kwesell/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Zach Thornton, 17, jumps into a blue hole at Prentice Cooper State Park Friday while Randy Bently takes a picture.
Tennessee Department of Agriculture Commissioner Ken Givens agreed, but "land swapping" is not the way to do it, he said Tuesday after a visit to Signal Mountain during which he discussed alternative ways of acquiring Mr. Wagner's land.
The 25 acres suggested in the swap were just too valuable, Mr. Givens said, and it never would be in Tennessee's best interest to lose such land to a private owner.
"Gov. Phil Bredesen's administration has never been in the business of swapping land," Mr. Givens said. "We don't need to lose (other) state property in order to acquire (more public) land. There are other ways to do that that will make everyone happy, assuming an owner wants to sell the property."
Mr. Wagner could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Mr. Givens said the Department of Agriculture will consider buying Mr. Wagner's land in the future at "fair market value," possibly using the land acquisition fund that is included this year in Gov. Bredesen's budget.
Mr. Powell's letter originally touted the land swap as an ideal way to resolve the issue, noting Mr. Wagner's land will provide environmental and educational benefits for Signal Mountain and beyond.
The swap would have protected "175 key acres along with an important natural geological landmark known as Mushroom Rock," the letter states.
The land is on the Cumberland Plateau in Sequatchie County and is bordered by the Prentice Cooper State Forest. It could become a convenient portal to the Cumberland Trail, proponents say.
Signal Mountain resident Jim Hall, who supports the acquisition of the land by any means, said Tuesday that moving the larger land mass into the public domain would mean a richer experience for all area residents.
"The land would provide an opportunity to expand the educational experience in conservation at Signal Mountain (Middle)-High School," Mr. Hall said. "It also would provide a link over to the Cumberland Trail."