A coalition of nonprofit organizations developing an outdoor recreational area near downtown Chattanooga is trying to turn the property over to Hamilton County. The move would allow the park to be open to the public once finished and add to the county's park system, but taxpayers would be on the hook for some maintenance and amenities while taking on potential liability.
The Hamilton County Commission discussed the possibility at Wednesday's meeting and will vote on whether to accept the property along Mountain Creek Road next week. Most of the property is on unbuildable land and couldn't be developed, county general services administrator Lee Norris said. Commissioners Tim Boyd, Joe Graham and Greg Martin voiced support along with Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, but they raised questions about the cost and liability of accepting such a property. No commissioners spoke against the proposal.
"What this really comes down to is the financial obligation going forward and deciding if we're willing to do this as a county," Coppinger said. "I would submit to you that it is really important, as was mentioned, especially considering the close proximity of this."
The North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy now holds about 100 acres of the property at the base of Signal Mountain below the W Road. Group vice president Taft Sibley believes the organization will secure an adjoining 100 acres from a private land owner later this month. When completed, the recreational area will have downhill mountain biking, bouldering and hiking. It would be the first area in the region with both climbing and mountain biking on the same property, according to The Land Trust for Tennessee Conservation Project Manager Rachael Bergmann.
Next week's vote will decide whether the county will accept the future conveyance of the property, but the process to build and transfer it could take several years.
"It's quite a while," Norris said. "The organizations are working to get grants to hire trail developers. This will be a professionally done effort. It's not going to be a fly-by-night on the seat of your britches. They are hiring professionals. That's going to take a while . I would say, the closest will be two-to-three years."
The organizations involved in the project — The Land Trust for Tennessee, Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association Chattanooga, Southeastern Climbing Coalition, North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy and Access Fund — don't have the capacity to manage the property, Bergmann said. However, they would be in charge of maintaining the trails and climbing areas. They also secured the property and developed a strategy of what to do with the land.
The private coalition does not have a current estimate on how much the county would have to pay to maintain the park. A lot of that will be determined by what the county wants to add to the facility, they said. If accepted, the county would be tasked with building an unpaved road and parking. Any additional development — such as a restroom facility, picnic area or expansion — also would fall to the county. Boyd raised concerns about the ballooning cost of management at Enterprise South Nature Park and wanted to know if that would happen at the Mountain Creek Road property. The annual budget for the nature park was close to $400,000 when it opened, he said. It has now grown to more than $1.5 million.
"As a steward of the taxpayers' money, this commission is obligated to look at long-term financial impact," Boyd said. "I just want to make sure. I'm not saying I'm against it. I'm just saying it seems like there are liabilities. There are financial commitments that this county is going to have to consider and should consider."
Bergmann and Sibley believe the project more closely resembles the recreational area on Stringer's Ridge, with unpaved roads and minimal maintenance costs. They also said the park would be eligible for more grant funding if it is managed publicly. Several commissioners also asked about the potential cost of rangers stationed at the property. Rangers now are assigned to three of the 16 county parks. Norris does not foresee rangers being assigned to the property.