Process continuing to bring Rocky Fork under state control

Brad Hicks • Feb 23, 2013 at 9:12 PM

FLAG POND — Although it could still be some time before Tennessee’s 55th state park at Rocky Fork opens to the public, it shouldn’t be long before the property that will eventually become the park comes into state ownership.

Ralph Knoll, field representative with the Conservation Fund, said the process of conveying the approximately 2,000 acres of Rocky Fork property from TCF ownership to the state is under way. The land survey has been completed, and the title work that goes along with the conveyance is under review by the state Department of General Services.

From there, it’s on to the attorney general’s office, which will approve the final deed. Once that has taken place, a closing date will be set and the property will officially be transferred to the state.

Knoll said he anticipates the conveyance to be completed within the next couple of months.

“That’s a work in progress, and I can’t predict today exactly when that closing is going to occur or when that conveyance will occur,” he said. “But the state’s going through their process and either, I think, late winter, early spring we’ll be in a position so that conveyance will take place.”

In late October, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander visited Unicoi County to announce that about 2,000 acres of the approximately 10,000-acre tract that makes up Rocky Fork would become Tennessee’s next state park. Rocky Fork is located along the Appalachian Trail corridor and the Tennessee-North Carolina border in Unicoi and Greene counties. It is also adjacent to more than 22,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service-designated wilderness.

For years, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency leased the land making up Rocky Fork from property owners to allow the area to be used by the public for outdoor activities. Eventual talk of the land possibly being sold to developers led the U.S. Forest Service to step in and express interest in acquiring the Rocky Fork area to keep it under public ownership.

However, land prices rose quickly and the Forest Service could not keep up. This led TCF to come in and purchase Rocky Fork property. The first land conveyance between TCF and the Forest Service was completed in late 2008 and, in September, the Forest Service finalized its purchase of Rocky Fork.

Over the years, the Forest Service has acquired around 7,600 acres of Rocky Fork, leaving around 2,000 acres, the area set to become the state park, remaining under TCF ownership.

A little more than two years ago, a feasibility study was completed to get an idea of what amenities could be placed in the area should Rocky Fork become a park, according to Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Conservation. Tentative plans include a ranger station/visitors center, trails, picnic areas and shelters, restrooms and campsites. An interpretation of the Flint Creek Battle site has also been proposed.

Rocky Fork will also offer visitors 16 miles of trout streams, educational opportunities and a close proximity to the Appalachian Trail, Hill said.

“These are all items we are discussing in terms of what our 55th state park might look like, what it could offer to our visitors and how it will enhance the surrounding communities,” Hill said. “Access is also very important, and TDEC is currently working with (the Tennessee Department of Transportation) to conceptualize a design for a park road that would serve as a connector from the entrance to the proposed facilities.”

No timetable for the state’s work has been set once the conveyance is complete. Also, no timetable for the park’s opening has been set.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said the county will be involved in the park process, and he expects the state to soon give the county an idea of what its responsibilities may be.

“A lot of time, there’s a community buy-in to certain things,” he said. “I’m sure that they’re going to come back to us and kind of give us an indication of what we can do as a county as a whole to enhance the project.”

Despite this, Lynch said county officials are already planning to take steps to enhance the park project. Lynch said local officials are also concerned about access to the park, and he and Unicoi County Superintendent of Roads Terry Haynes will travel to Nashville this week to meet with state Rep. Kent Williams and other officials to discuss traffic around the proposed entrance.

“We’re looking at the arterial traffic routes into the area, trying to determine what projects need to be done, and we’ll be advised, I’m sure, by the state and TDOT as to what we might need to do in order to make traffic into the area safe and make it to where it’s not congested or any kind of danger is involved,” Lynch said.

On Monday, the Unicoi County Commission will consider a resolution presented by Haynes in support of improving arterial traffic access from Interstate 26 to Rocky Fork Road. Lynch said improvements would not only enhance access into the park, but would improve traffic flow for residents of the Flag Pond community.

Lynch also said he expects the new park to have a beneficial impact on the county, as well as the region, once it opens.

“I think the state park will have a definite effect on our marketing of Unicoi County, both in tourism and our livable community,” he said. “I think, also, it will help the whole area as we move forward with other projects, and all of them will hopefully put together a brand for Unicoi County and draw more visitors and more people to come in here to settle and raise a family.”

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