published Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Cleveland, Johnston heirs at impasse on city park use

  • photo
    An American flag waves across the street from Johnston Memorial Park in Cleveland, Tenn. The park is a green space in the downtown area of Cleveland.
    Staff Photo by Allison Carter/Chattanooga Times Free Press

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — The City Council has reached a stalemate on the future of Johnston Memorial Park with the heirs of the family that donated the block as a greenspace decades ago.

The Johnston family says the city has violated the deed restrictions of the donation and wishes of the donors by building a bandstand wall and a gazebo, which were dedicated in 1979. They also say the original intent was to have no organized events so the park could be a place for quiet relaxation.

“We want to end the history of broken promises and threat of reversion,” according to a letter to the city from the estate of the Joe C. Stuart Trust.

City officials say previous family representatives at least tacitly approved of events such as Veterans Day ceremonies and the outdoor summer Evening Shade concerts. They say there was no objection at the time to the structures, including refurbishing the gazebo just three years ago.

In January, the council approved a motion by Councilman George Poe that the downtown park be treated just like any other city park or that the city return the property to the family.

On Monday, family members approached the council with a counteroffer that would allow the Veterans Day ceremony and Evening Shade concerts to stay in the park and asking the city to schedule renovations to bring the park back into compliance with the original deed.

The council rejected the counteroffer.

“It seems to me we have reached a standoff,” Poe said.

The family now can start legal proceedings to reclaim the park, but it “really does not want to do that,” family representative Elizabeth Ferguson told the council Monday.

“We are disappointed,” Ferguson said after Monday’s meeting. “We believed we had compromised and come halfway, but then the city raises another obstacle.”

She said the heirs will have to meet soon to consider what to do next.

Johnston Park is not the only city park with deed restrictions, Ferguson said, pointing out that Fletcher Park has more pages of restrictions than Johnston.

“It’s a very unusual thing for a city to have an entire block that is still green-space,” Ferguson said. “We would like to see it remain an attribute to the city. At the same time, the city made certain promises and those promises were broken.”

“I have a problem saying to the public you can use this park but you cannot,” Poe said.

Ferguson said the public can use the park already.

Councilman Bill Estes proposed a compromise that allowed Veterans Day and Evening Shade to be the only events at the park, but also allowed the gazebo to remain. Estes’ plan called for agreement that the wall behind the bandstand area should be razed to prevent it being used as a screen for undesirable activities.

The council rejected that plan on a 4-3 vote.

about Randall Higgins...

Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...

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