JASPER, Tenn. — It's not often that the Marion County Commission gets a room full of applause.
On Monday, that's exactly what county leaders got from Aetna Mountain property owners when the board voted unanimously to support the view that a six-mile stretch of Aetna Mountain Road is for public use.
"The purpose of our saying it's a public road is to get some clarification," Commission Chairman Les Price said. "We feel like it is a public road and it has been a public road."
For two months, the board has wrestled with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's decision to prohibit motor vehicles along the western portion of the road, which private landowners claim blocks access to their property.
"[TWRA] has stated we have other access, and short of parachuting into it or hiking through the woods, we don't have other access to our property," landowner Jeff Perlacky said. "We could trespass across other people's property, but that's not a solution. We count on that road."
County Mayor John Graham said he received a letter recently from TWRA Region III Manager John Mayer requesting a "position statement" from the county about the road.
The amount of information researched on the matter is "pretty extensive," County Attorney Billy Gouger said, and it's clear that the eastern portion, or Hamilton County side, of Aetna Mountain Road has been deemed public throughout a decade of litigation.
"The area from the top of the mountain to the west side is the gray area," he said. "We don't have a court ruling, and we don't have action by [Marion's board] to declare its status as public or private."
Graham said TWRA District 32 Law Enforcement Officer Russell Vandergriff told him plans call for the development of roads through the disputed area.
"Until they're able to bring equipment in and do that, their policy is to allow only foot traffic," he said.
There is not yet a legal "body of work" that categorizes the western part of the road, Gouger said.
Graham said his only concern is for those people who own property within the county's borders.
"Let's get this thing out there in the public view, because something is not quite right," he said.
Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.