Unicoi County officials look to get to bottom of sinkhole issue

Brad Hicks • Apr 8, 2013 at 8:44 AM

ERWIN — Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said officials across the county share concerns over the impact of existing sinkholes and threat of future ones, and he wants to see that officials are on the same page as the county moves forward in addressing the issue.

Lynch said he will likely form a county sinkhole task force that will be tasked with digging deeper into the matter.

“I’ve given it a whole lot of thought,” Lynch said. “In fact, I think I’m going to move forward with it.”

The proposed panel can be formed at Lynch’s discretion, and he envisions a committee made up of the county mayor, town of Unicoi mayor, Unicoi County director of schools and at least one county commissioner. A priority for this committee would be gathering information to determine how at risk areas of the county may be to sinkhole development, Lynch said.

“We need to find out if there’s more happening in our area,” he said.

Several sinkholes have opened up in the county over the past three years. In July 2010, a large sinkhole opened at the intersection of Buffalo Ridge Road and Fairway Point near the Buffalo Valley Golf Course in the town of Unicoi. Two large sinkholes have opened in the Love Chapel Community since late 2011, one of which led to the eventual closure of Love Chapel Elementary School.

In December 2011, a sinkhole opened under a swimming pool at a residence on Bradshaw Woods Road, which is located directly behind Love Chapel Elementary School. On Aug. 18, a sinkhole was discovered on the school’s grounds, and a student relocation plan was implemented shortly thereafter.

The Unicoi County Board of Education subsequently voted to hire an engineering firm to conduct testing on various areas of the school grounds. According to the firm’s report, four areas on the school’s property showed signs of sinkhole activity and two other were in the process of developing sinkhole activity. The school board voted to permanently close the school in February.

Lynch said impacted citizens, particularly those in the Love Chapel community, want to see the sinkhole issue settled.

“Although it affects one area of the county, it really could have a significant impact on the whole county as far as our tax base and our future property taxes, so I think that we need to get some people together, a task force or committee, to kind of look into next steps, what do we do next as far as trying to determine our vulnerability to sinkholes or what kind of technology is out there,” Lynch said.

Lynch said he feels a task force would provide greater efficiency in addressing sinkholes, as it would eliminate separate county entities gathering information on their own. He said the task force may also give the county better access to resources, including those at East Tennessee State University, or technology used to study sinkholes. Lynch also said he would like to see a local sinkhole specialist serve on the task force to offer input.

“We really just need someone who knows what they’re talking about, exactly, to kind of give us a reality of what we face, are we in any more danger than other areas of the country, other counties,” Lynch said. “If so, what can be done.”

Late last month, the Unicoi County Commission approved a motion to apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency to have the Love Chapel area declared a disaster area and study properties in the area for possible sinkhole activity.

A written copy of the commission’s request has not yet been sent to legislators representing Unicoi County, but Lynch said they are aware of the sinkhole issue.

Lynch said action needs to be taken to ease some of the concerns that both officials and county residents share.

“If there’s answers, we need to get them,” Lynch said. “If we can get answers to our people, then we need to get answers.”

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