JASPER, Tenn. — The battle for control of a 6-mile stretch of Aetna Mountain Road once again has been brought to the Marion County Commission.
At the board's November meeting, Commissioner Joey Blevins, who manages 1,000 acres on the mountain, said complaints about the safety and access to Aetna Mountain Road have resurfaced after a recent fire trapped some families in the area because the road was blocked by locked gates.
Aetna resident Jeff Fox said private landowners like Resource Land Holdings in Denver, Colo., have erected gates along the road to keep out trespassers, but that's creating a safety and access problem for other area property owners.
In 2013, the board unanimously voted to support the view that the parts of Aetna Mountain Road that are not on the county's road list were for public use historically.
A lawsuit over access to the road filed by Steve Perlacky was dismissed by the plaintiff two weeks ago.
Jasper Mayor Paul Evans owns 220 acres on the mountain and said the reason the road has been gated in spots is to keep trespassers off the land.
"I don't care if anybody is riding the road out there," he said. "That's not an issue. It's when they get on my property and go down there and start tearing my property up. It's posted [with private property signs] from one end to the other."
All the property owners on the mountain deserve to protect their property, he said.
Evans said he's been threatened several times by intruders on his land.
"I don't go out there with just one gun anymore," he said. "All the fatalities that have happened out there have been alcohol-related. They're out there having fun and destroying property."
Danny Rader, an attorney representing Resource Land Holdings, agreed the issue boils down to trespassing.
"There are, I'm sure, responsible off-roaders in this community, but there are a whole lot who aren't," he said. "My client has an obligation to try and secure their land to keep these trespassers off."
Fox said private landowners have "no business" blocking the road with gates.
History and records indicate the land [and the road] has always been private property, Rader said.
"But that's what the court is for — to make that decision," he said. "Some of these folks want to have a case in court. The courthouse doors are open."
When Commission Chairman Gene Hargis joined the Marion County Sheriff's Department in the early 1990s, he said the situation on Aetna Mountain was "a madhouse."
"It was ridiculous," he said. "There would be hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people piled in. They'd be on everyone's property."
If the gates were removed, Hargis said he fears those days might return.
"The issue of the gates is a private matter between landowners," County Attorney Billy Gouger said. "It doesn't affect the county because they're not blocking a county road. Public road versus private road is really not a county issue under the law."
There is precedent going both ways on whether roads on Aetna Mountain are public or not, he said, and the issue is "not something the county commission can get involved in."
"I think when the county commission starts taking sides or trying to police the issue, you run a very big risk of affecting someone's private land rights," Gouger said. "When you start impacting someone's rights to their property, one way or the other, then the county is potentially liable for damages."
He said no county official has legal authority to intervene with an issue on private property.
"If the parties don't agree, that's a matter for the courts," Gouger said. "There is a remedy available, but it doesn't come through this body [the board], it goes through the court system."
Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.