A conservation agreement between Signal Mountain and The Land Trust for Tennessee has protected almost 350 acres along the majestic mountain bluffs surrounding the small town.
"The town still owns, manages and governs the lands, as they have since the properties were conveyed to the town," said Joel Houser, southeast regional director for The Land Trust for Tennessee. "However, the town donated the development rights associated with those lands to The Land Trust, ensuring the park lands can never be developed."
An easement allows for recreational uses and related structures associated with outdoor recreation such as trail heads, backpacking shelters and the like. There can be no commercial or residential development, Houser said.
The 342 acres now protected under the conservation agreement consist of public land given to the town over the years by local donors, most of whom, like the family that donated the Rainbow Lake parcel, gave it "with the express intention of offering recreational opportunities in the town of Signal Mountain," Houser said.
Signal Mountain residents Michael Garvich, his wife, Amy, and their small children, Chance and Hadley, live just around the corner from the Rainbow Lake trail head that leads down the bluff into the protected property.
The Garviches made the quarter-mile trip to the trail Friday to walk off some Thanksgiving calories. In the small trail head parking lot, a dozen cars bore license plates from Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and a few Tennessee counties, including Hamilton.
Amy Garvich said she and her husband are frequent users of the golf course that abuts a long stretch of the park land, and their children now are old enough to start going along with them on the trails in the area.
"We've grown up on these trails and spent a lot of time on them as kids," Michael Garvich, 36, said of his years as a Signal Mountain youth. Now, the parents of two said they're happy to hand down the outdoor, backyard tradition.
The largest section of land is on the south and west fringes of town, wrapping around the point of Signal Mountain north to Rainbow Lake.
Rainbow Lake was once part of the Signal Mountain Inn, built by C.E. James in 1913. According to historical accounts on the town website, James recognized an opportunity around the turn of the century when yellow fever and cholera became epidemic in the valley, prompting those who could afford it to escape to the surrounding mountains.
James began buying up the land near the point of the mountain and parceling it up to sell for summer homes. By 1913, he had built the inn and a trolley to haul people up from the valley. By 1918, a resort and community golf course were built but the area remained a seasonal destination for livestock owners who brought their animals to the mountain to graze.
The town of Signal Mountain was chartered after residents living near the point and users of the golf course grew tired of farm animals dining on the fairways, relaxing on the greens and tromping around the neighborhoods eating lawn grass. Banning animals from town was the first order of business.
This fall, as town elections loomed, the idea of conserving this land became the center of controversy as leaders weighed options. Some residents voiced support for working with the trust to conserve the land. Others worried the town was giving its land away and taking choices from future generations of Signal Mountain residents.
A 3-2 vote in October passed the conservation agreement, and two of the three council members who voted in favor of the agreement were defeated in town elections Nov. 7.
"There was quite a bit of public comment at the public meeting and council meetings. There were some for and some opposed, but the council voted to adopt it and that's where we stand today," assistant town manager Eric Mitchell said.
Mitchell said the land is important to the people in the community, and its trails attract many users.
"The trails are frequently used by not just citizens of the town and we have a lot of visitors who use the trails," Mitchell said.
In the end, the agreement "keeps it in its natural state and protects the land from development," Mitchell said.
Houser says the move makes certain that users will be able to see sweeping vistas from protected public land for generations to come.
Between Rainbow Lake and Signal Point, "there are scenic vistas that really make folks appreciate where we are on this planet," Houser said.
Green Gorge Park, part of the now-protected land near the east brow of the mountain, has about 2 miles of wilderness trail in the middle of residential neighborhoods, he said.
"The protection of these properties is the culmination of years of community input and hard work," Houser said. "The process took over four years and has protected the parcels, as well as the spirit in which the properties were donated to the town."
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com, twitter.com/BenBenton, www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.