Thursday, January 10, 2019, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, State Parks Division held a public meeting to discuss a proposal to acquire the Morrill Electric property within sight of the park entrance and apply for a grant from the EPA to clean up the contaminated site and redevelop it for the park’s use. Due to the fact that notice of this meeting was not released to the public until the day before the meeting, only five citizens participated along with one reporter from the Erwin Record and the park manager.
TDEC Grants Consultant Ryan Ray presented a proposal to apply for an EPA grant of $500,000 to clean up the site, projected to actually cost $618,000, the difference to be paid by TDEC. Although notice of this meeting alluded to the site being redeveloped into an equestrian trailhead, Ray confirmed that the grant is for cleaning up the site once TDEC acquires it and does not pertain to the precise purpose for which the site is then redeveloped.
Ray presented to the group of seven present some options for additional grants that would be pursued for funds to redevelop the site after cleanup and acknowledged that future use of the site was a separate issue and would be addressed at future public meetings and comment periods.
Although the small group seemed to all support the acquisition and clean up of the site, several questioned the future use as an equestrian trailhead and voiced opinions that the site would better serve the park as the visitor center location.
Ray reconfirmed that future use of the site is not dictated by the grant being applied for and that the various uses suggested other than as an equestrian trailhead could be considered by TDEC and discussed with the public at future meetings.
As for using the site as an equestrian trailhead, the park manager confirmed that TDEC has been working on a plan for a new horse trail into the park, which would start across the road from the site on property TDEC is working to acquire but does not yet own. One might wonder, if the park acquired land that would accommodate a new horse trail into the Flint Mountain area of the park, the same area as the proposed campground, perhaps auto access to the campground could be through that same property, thereby avoiding a great deal of environmental damage from construction of the currently proposed road to the campground area.
As for the reason for such short notice of this meeting, Ray said TDEC did not want to address the public on the topic until they were at least very close to a deal to acquire the property, and the grant sought has a deadline for application of January 31 so a very small window was available and the best he could do was a posting in the Erwin Record one day prior.
The acquisition and cleanup of this site seems to be a worthwhile project and very beneficial to the area and Unicoi County, which is currently stuck with an unusable contaminated site and could come away with a nicely redeveloped facility.
However, this will run into the millions of dollars and the future use of the site does create many questions that need to be addressed with further public input.