On June 2, an op ed column by David A. Ramsey appeared in the Johnson City Press criticizing those opposing the overdevelopment of Rocky Fork State Park. Johnny Cosgrove of Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning and Christian Hunt of Defenders of Wildlife—two of the many folks hoping to change the plans for the park—responded with letters to the editor that you can read here.
Numerous statements in the article by Ramsey suggest that he is not fully informed about the state’s plans, which may well be the case since he has spent the last few years focused on developing the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership. For example, Ramsey says there would not be RVs, but the plans state clearly that the road is designed to accommodate them.
He also says Unicoi County citizens “made a major compromise and commitment, exchanging their support for the development of a multi-million dollar residential resort for that of preserving a true Tennessee mountain treasure and creation of a new state park to help their economy” and that “if a state park could be established on at least part of the tract, it would ultimately offset the economic loss of both current and future property tax revenue, which the county very much needed.”
First of all, that large residential resort development was very unlikely to have ever come about; a consultant concluded that the site was unfeasible for development and the ostensible would-be buyers had to defend themselves in court over numerous crooked deals. Second, Tennessee’s Conservation Compensation Fund pays the property taxes for the state park land. Third, although it is less than what private owners would pay in property taxes, the federal Impact Aid Program annually pays counties with large federal land ownership: $61,000 for Unicoi County in 2019—and this from an owner who does not even expect county services in return.
Indeed a residential resort development in Rocky Fork would have brought in additional taxes. But, after providing all the services expected in return, the county would likely have had to raise taxes. Now, as a result of preserving this special place, tourism will bring many visitors and the county will benefit economically—if it has the infrastructure in place to take advantage of the increase in visitors. Large development within the park would only destroy the natural beauty of the larger tract (which is what draws tourists) making it impossible to ever recoup the $23 million spent on the road.
Perhaps the best argument against Ramsey’s article is provided on page 81 of his own book, Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild: “The Cherokee National Forest, that covered nearly half of the county, comprised a largely untapped economic asset of major proportions, and, in our assessment, adding the spectacular Rocky Fork Watershed to that asset would increase its long term value to the community by far more than what might be derived from property taxes alone.” His is a beautiful publication in which he tells the story of Rocky Fork’s “salvation” from development. But what his audience needs to realize is, the story doesn’t end with Dave’s book: the Rocky Fork tract is still under threat—this time from the state itself.
We are still expecting meetings and/or a chance for public input on those plans when the new leaders at TDEC get up to speed on the issue. We will keep you up to date until then.