The City Commission approved an agreement with Boone Watershed Partnership Thursday to pursue the first phase of the Sinking Creek Wetlands Project, a 28-acre environmental education park off King Springs Road, but it does not include construction of a parking lot or boardwalk — not yet.
After a lengthy Power Point presentation by Public Works Director Phil Pindzola, commissioners raised many a question about safety, long-term maintenance and other issues at the park. So, with a consensus that there were too many unknowns, a vote on the project, which was to include 600 feet of wetlands in about 2.5 acres of the property, was unanimously deferred to give Johnson City Police Chief Mark Sirois time to consider safety issues.
At 9 p.m., just as the meeting was about to end, Vice Mayor Phil Carriger did what you might call a “wait a minute.”
“What if we pulled the parking lot and boardwalk portion out for now and went ahead with the wetlands?” he asked other commissioners. “That would give Chief Sirois time to evaluate the safety risks, and we could look closer into what the maintenance costs would be.”
Pindzola was asked his opinion.
“I agree. That’s a good idea,” he said.
Another unanimous vote. This one set in motion a $103,805 grant from the Department of Agriculture for the first phase — minus the frills for now. This means the city will be spending about half the $41,500 of in-kind expenses required by the grant. It also means engineers will have more time to acquire permits from the Tennessee Department of Conservation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is in the picture because the land is in a flood plain.
One stickler was that the TDA requires the Boone Watershed Partnership to complete the first phase by Sept. 23, and there were doubts whether everything could come together by that time.
The estimated cost to complete the entire project is about $381,000.
Bill Francisco shook his head from side to side when commissioners first agreed to defer the matter. The man has been on a mission to see the project through. Jacob Francisco, one of Bill’s two sons, was 6 years old when he was contaminated with E. coli bacteria from an unknown source. His condition worsened, and he eventually died on June 29, 2004.
It is possible E. coli from the creek was responsible for Jacob’s death. In an effort to do something in memory of his son, he connected with Gary Tysinger, of Johnson City’s Tysinger Hampton & Partners, who created the proposed design for the park at the Sinking Creek wetlands, which, in turn, will act in tandem as an expansion of the Sinking Creek Restoration Project.
“This is probably a neighborhood that has not seen infrastructure like this,” he told commissioners when it became clear they wanted to defer the vote. “Plus, teachers and educators are excited about this. The vegetation going in the wetlands is proven to reduce pollution.”
In 2008, TDA awarded the Boone Watershed Partnership a $300,000 grant, of which the city matched 40 percent, to address pollution in the creek. The $103,805 is what remains from that grant.
“We probably would not be going in this direction if it were not for Bill,” Gary Barrigar, Boone Watershed Partnership president, said earlier in the day. “He’s very passionate. For years, we’ve been trying to eliminate pollution along the creek by getting people off septic tanks and onto the city system. The entire Sinking Creek watershed is 13.1 square miles. This effort will also reduce flooding downstream.
“The park will tell the story of what we’ve done, and the story of the natural surroundings. The Johnson City School Board is behind this. So is ETSU’s biology department, which will be helping us do studies, as well as designing education materials.”
Barrigar said the group has about $10,000 in hand to put toward this first phase. He also wrote a second grant in the amount of $225,000 that has been submitted to the state for money that will be used to extend the boardwalk and bolster the educational elements.
“We’ve been working with local educators in Washington, Sullivan and Unicoi counties, as well as Washington County, Va.,” he said. “We hold stream clean-ups and work with ETSU and the Boone Lake organization on Brush Creek. Johnson City, Bristol and Elizabethton have representatives that sit on our board.”
Besides the watershed partnership, HydroCycle Engineering, East Tennessee State University, TVA, Morning Rotary Club and various volunteer groups are helping raise the 40 percent local match required for the grant to construct the first phase.
Commissioners also agreed on recommended appointments by Mayor Jeff Banyas to launch a Rails-to-Trails task force that will be charged with helping guide the start and completion of the $5.2 million, 10-mile trail between Johnson City and Elizabethton.
On March 21, Banyas emphasized the need to bring form a task force and to get private investors to help pay for construction.
“We need to let the group meet and set some goals and get organized,” he said Thursday. “I think that this group can help bring it together.”
The following names were unanimously approved: Steve Darden, former commissioner and mayor; Dr. Dan Schumaier, Johnson City business owner; Ray Flynn, an avid runner; Grant Summers, developer/builder; Steve Frabitore, a Tupelo Honey stakeholder; the city manager; mayor; vice mayor; representatives not yet identified from the city of Elizabethton, and possibly others as time goes by.