JASPER, Tenn. — The fight for control of a six-mile stretch of Aetna Mountain Road has reignited, but this time Marion County government hopes to stay out of the battle.
At the Marion County Commission's October meeting, Steve Perlacky, who owns about 500 acres of land on the mountain, said developers have gated the road on the Marion side.
"I've fought for Aetna Mountain Road for years because it's the only access to my property," he said to the board. "If we're running a business up there, and we need a firetruck, ambulance or police car, how are they going to get there?"
Perlacky said a serious accident already has occurred on the mountain, and it took nearly two hours for help to arrive.
"I don't see that getting better if they can't even get to our property without having to go through Hamilton County and up Aetna Mountain Road that way," he said. "It would be a significant delay."
Perlacky said he has filed a lawsuit against one group developers, but he asked the board to act on the emergency access issue until the litigation is settled. Another landowner complained that a gate has cut off access to some of her property on another of the mountain's roads. She said she should have access to the road due to ingress and egress rights granted by the county.
"Who is supposed to enforce the law, if the county can't?" she asked.
However, County Attorney Billy Gouger said that even though Perlacky's point about emergency access is a good one, the board doesn't have a role in the dispute because the disputed road section is not in the county system.
"The county only has legal jurisdiction to address issues involving a county road," he said.
This is the third time Aetna Mountain landowners have asked commissioners to get involved in the access dispute.
In 2013, the board unanimously passed a resolution saying that a six-mile stretch of Aetna Mountain Road not on the county's road list were for public use historically.facebook
Landowners complained about the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency blocking vehicles and ticketing drivers during a controversy over access to off-roading trails on the mountain, as well as spats between mountain property owners and developers of the luxury Black Creek Mountain golf resort, who were building their own road and were blamed for blocking or diverting the public road.
Doug Stein, a developer for Black Creek Mountain, said the gate that is at issue in the latest dispute has not been put in place by anyone associated with Black Creek.
"The six mile stretch of road in Marion County has nothing to do with the Black Creek development," Stein wrote in an email.
This past April, property owners begged commissioners to declare a dirt road known as State Line Road public and stop the TWRA from writing tickets and arresting trespassers in the short stretch of road that crossed TWRA property.
Gouger, though, said then the commission couldn't arbitrarily declare a road public or private, and commissioners took no action.
At the recent commission meeting, he said if the board did decide to act on the matter, it would do so at great risk.
"Governmental entities always have to be concerned about inverse condemnation," he said. "If you start taking property rights away from one party and granting them to another, then you may open the county up to a damages claim from one side, the other, or both. As it stands right now, it is a private matter between these landowners."
Commissioner Joey Blevins said he has used Aetna Mountain Road to access property on top of the mountain for 45 years, and he's not about to give up his rights to it.
He said he doesn't understand how the developers' rights to erect a gate override his rights to access that property.
They may not, Gouger said.
"That's ultimately for a judge to decide," he said. "I don't think this body [the County Commission] is in a position to make that decision."
If the roads are going to be gated, Gouger said, there should be some communication between the landowners in control of the gates and Marion's emergency communications so they'll know whom to contact to get the gates opened.
A representative for the developers controlling at least one gate said most county officers have keys to the gates, but Marion's ambulance service does not.
He said he has offered to unlock the gates so other landowners can get through.
"They demanded that they had to have a key," said the representative, who declined to give his name. "I don't care to give them a key. It's just the landowners out there tell me who I give and who I don't give them to."
Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story has been updated to note that Doug Stein, a developer associated with Black Creek Mountain, has denied that his group has anything to do with a gate in Marion County.