CHARLESTON, Tenn. - A proposed luxury recreational vehicle resort on the Hiwassee River in Bradley County, Tennessee, ground to a halt this month after suggestions the property could hold Native American artifacts or burial sites.
Billy Thomas, developer of the RV resort, said he knows Native Americans lived along "every inch of the Hiwassee." He paid almost $6,000 for archaeological testing that did not find any significant artifacts or evidence of burial sites on his riverside tract on Upper River Road. The matter delayed a County Commission vote on the rezoning of his property.
Bradley County Commissioner Charlotte Peak was notified of possible relics or burial sites on the property.
"There's no question that Indians were on this property, but that doesn't mean there are burial sites," Thomas said Thursday as he stood on an old bridge on his 8 acres sandwiched between the Hiwassee River and Chatata Creek east of the town of Charleston. He has started work to turn the bridge into a timber-covered span, creating a novel entrance to the property.
Thomas, 64, is a longtime developer in the county who in past decades developed mobile home parks. If he can get approval, Thomas wants to construct a high-end park to sell or lease spaces to luxury RV owners seeking retirement or seasonal homes in a development with full amenities.
Tentative designs include large concrete pads for luxury RVs, a clubhouse, community pavilion and fire pit, and a boat launch site on the creek.
Peak raised the issue at the commission's July meeting because she thought her fellow commissioners should know concerns were raised about potential relics or burial sites by people who said they had knowledge of arrowheads and other items being found on the property, she said Thursday in an email. She also notified the panel there were neighbors who oppose the development of a mobile home park.
"I don't see any reason that his property would be denied rezoning since his property meets all the criteria to be (rezoned) and the Planning Commission voted to rezone it," she said. "I commend him for wanting to find out for sure if there was a notable burial ground. He is not required by the state or the county to do such a study. Mr. Thomas is a reputable builder, and I have no doubt that if he did hit bones that he would stop immediately per state law requirement."
Longtime Charleston resident Chris Scoggins spoke about the concerns in a recent county meeting but he contends he doesn't want to stop the project as much as he wants such proposals to be better vetted for historical significance, he said Saturday in a phone interview.
Nearby property owners have relayed stories to Scoggins over the years about plowing fields not far from the Thomas property where bones and skulls were exposed by the work. Scoggins said those accounts are reason for better vetting but he made clear he doesn't claim such artifacts have been found there, while noting arrowheads are present on the property and on properties all along the river in the Charleston area tied to the Civil War and Cherokee and earlier Native American history.
"All I said was there's a great possibility of it, knowing the history up there," Scoggins said. "I hope his intentions are good. I wish everybody involved good luck."
Cumberland Applied Research Associates Inc. in Chattanooga performed the archaeological survey of the property July 8 by digging 20 sample test sites up to 2 meters deep to screen for artifacts or signs of graves, according to a management summary on the tests provided by Thomas.
Proposed luxury RV park in Bradley County
None of the tests yielded archaeological materials, according to the summary.
Additionally, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has no information that would stop the development, agency spokeswoman Kim Schofinski said Thursday in an email.
"TDEC does not have a record of an archaeological site of any kind on this property," Schofinski said, and most of the time it wouldn't matter anyway.
"There is no state law that requires private landowners to avoid disturbing archaeological sites, even if known sites are present on their property," she said.
"An exception is human graves - all human graves are protected under state law regardless of land ownership," she said. "If graves, burials or human remains are identified during construction, state law requires that all work stop and that local law enforcement, the county coroner or medical examiner, and the state archaeologist are contacted."
Thomas' proposed resort has another opponent in Upper River Road resident Daniel Marlow, who launched an online petition against the development and says he wants the county to create new zoning specifically for Thomas' proposal.
Marlow's petition had garnered more than 240 signatures by Friday morning. About a week ago, Thomas launched an online petition in answer to show support for his development. Thomas' petition had more than 75 signatures Friday.
"I'm not opposed to any development. I'm opposed to developments that take farmland and create something that reduces surrounding property values," Marlow, 39, said Friday in a phone interview.
Marlow, who lives in a modular home on a private parcel down the road from the Thomas property, said his lifelong ties to Upper River Road go back generations and he doesn't want to see negative change.
Marlow is worried new zoning regulations passed in May for mobile home parks and travel trailer parks allow too much room for low-income housing if Thomas' proposed plan fails or the property is later sold to another developer.
Marlow wants a new category created "that involves the luxury element of this resort and locks these property developers into what they promise the community," he said.
"I want to be really clear; I don't think it's Billy's intentions today to put trailers on that property," Marlow said Friday, "but I also think the commission needs to think about what happens if his current plan fails."
Scoggins said Saturday that the idea Marlow proposes would be a step in the right direction to make sure developers take a more responsible approach.
Bradley County Commissioner Mike Hughes, a commission representative on the county's planning body, said Marlow's suggested new rule probably wouldn't be useful because any changes in ownership or changes to planned development would have to go through the entire planning process again. However, Marlow's idea is under study, Hughes said Friday in a phone interview.
Bradley County's standing mobile home park regulations call for paved roads that meet county standards, and that might be why no mobile home parks have been proposed or approved in at least 10 years, county Director of Planning and Inspections Bently Thomas said Friday in a phone interview.
He said rezoning of the property will be on the commission agenda for a vote Aug. 1.