published Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Marion County officials say state law won't let them repair road

Marion County Mayor John Graham
Marion County Mayor John Graham
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

JASPER, Tenn. — Some Marion County residents want repairs to parts of Hargiss Cove Road and a bridge leading to an old cemetery there, but county leaders said state law forbids it.

Hargiss Cove Road is not a county-owned road, and Marion Road Superintendent Neal Webb said it would be illegal for county workers to do anything to improve a privately owned road or bridge.

Resident Linda Rozar disagrees, and she asked the Marion County Commission to help.

The county built the road originally, she said, and there are records that prove it. The road and bridge should have been "grandfathered" into the county's road list long ago, Rozar said.

But Webb said state officials examined the area recently and do not consider it a county road.

"If [the board] authorized me to do this, [the state] is going to come after me," he said.

County Attorney Billy Gouger said he looked into the issue when it first came up several months ago.

"There are some statutory provisions that make it a criminal offense for the road superintendent to work on the road or the bridge," he said.

A separate statute makes it a criminal offense for the board to allocate county resources "for the improvement of private property," Gouger said.

He said he is sympathetic to the residents' frustration with the dilapidated road and understands the needs for families who have loved ones in the nearby cemetery.

"But my responsibility is to see that this body and Superintendent Webb's office follow the law," Gouger said. "Until someone tells me otherwise, it's my opinion that it's illegal for [the board] to take any action to improve it, repair it, use any resources, or spend any money on it."

County Mayor John Graham, who was the county road superintendent for many years before becoming mayor, said he never authorized work on Hargiss Cove Road during his tenure, even though he received multiple requests to do so.

"I don't know that years ago [the county] may have worked on that road, but they can't work on it now," he said.

Officials said most state laws on county roads were enacted in the mid-1970s, and before that the statutes weren't consistent as to how counties could spend money on road repairs.

Decades ago, the county was allowed to help with road access to cemeteries, Gouger said, even on private property.

"It was deemed to be a public benefit, but that's clearly not allowed in the current law," he said. "Whether you agree or disagree with that law, it is what the law is."

For the county to ever do roadwork in the area, Gouger said, there would have to be a deed of dedication from property owners, and the road and bridge would have to be accepted on Marion's road list.

"If it's not [the county's] property, you can't spend money on it," he said.

Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at ryanlewis34@gmail.com.

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