We’re talking Tweetsie Trail here. A meeting Tuesday at Johnson City’s Municipal & Safety Building intended by city officials to be “informational” marked the first of three planned public discussions that will shape the practical and recreational uses along the 10-mile section of former East Tennessee Railroad right-of-way.
Though Steve Neilson, the city’s long-range planning coordinator, did reveal some new information regarding how Johnson City plans to proceed with East Tennessee’s first “rails-to-trails” project, about 125 people packed the City Commission chambers — and most were up for a hearty Q&A session.
Elizabethton resident Rob Stout, as well as dozens of other Elizabethton residents, were not comfortable with the possibility of ATV use, increased criminal activity and security issues, lighting, fencing, noise and property rights concerns.
“Most of us live in Elizabethton,” Stout said to Neilson. “How can you patrol that? You don’t even have adequate security at Winged Deer Park as it is. Would you be happy if it was in your backyard?”
“Yes I would,” Neilson responded.
The informational meeting/discussion would never have occurred if not for the years of meetings, conversations, telephone calls, letters, emails and lengthy negotiations that have come and gone in order to secure the property’s use.
After saying he “certainly misjudged the amount of people that would be here,” Neilson established the baseline status, future procedural plans and some basic expectations for the multipurpose recreational pathway.
“The first thing we’re doing is putting out a request for proposals that will go out in about one week to architectural engineers experienced in rails-to-trails,” he said. “They’ll have four weeks to respond. We will choose one of these, and we anticipate the final design to be done in fall of next year.”
The Tennessee Department of Transportation has expressed an interest in helping fund the project, and city officials are hoping to receive corporate support, he added.
“We’ll also be looking at linking into other recreation trails, such as Sycamore Shoals and the State of Franklin trail (a stretch of pedestrian and bicycle path stretching from ETSU into downtown),” he said. “About 250 of the properties along or near the trail are in Carter County, and we will be looking into privacy and security concerns. We’ll also be looking at building in phases and considering parking sites.”
Neilson said the RFP also calls for a five-year maintenance plan and that Johnson City and Elizabethton will be coordinating security.”
In late April, the Johnson City Commission took a long-awaited step and approved a $600,000 agreement to buy approximately 70 acres of land needed for the project from Genesee & Wyoming, the parent company of East Tennessee Railway.
The property’s path includes land where the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina railroad once operated between Johnson City and Elizabethton, and the abandoned corridor runs from Alabama and Legion streets in Johnson City and ends near the State Line Drive-In in Elizabethton.
The railroad signed the contract in April as well, and the deal closed in late June. When that happened, the city became legally responsible for the property. However, the company still has roughly 22 months to remove rails and other equipment.
Attendees came well-prepared, though it was not a scheduled public hearing on the issue.
Some, who made it known they did not like the plan, asked why Johnson City wanted land in Elizabethton in the first place. Others were persistent in their requests about right-of-way issues.
But there were plenty of people in attendance who backed the plan. At one point, a man asked for a show of hands as to who would like to see the trail go forward. The hands went up — just more than half.
“We own property on Stateline Road, which is commercial,” said Elizabethton resident Burl Shipley. “We have two possibilities. Bicycle shops in the area have shown interest in establishing a new business at this property.”
Walkers, hikers, joggers, bicyclists, and possibly horseback riders, will be among those having access to the trail
But there’s much more to consider. What about nature lovers and bird watchers who choose not to do the locomotion? What about motorized or mechanized vehicles? Then there’s seniors, people with special needs, pets and babies in strollers.
Consider restaurants, bike shops, surface types, vertical clearances, types and widths of shoulders, benches, drinking fountains, shaded rest areas and restrooms. Should there be dog-friendly drinking fountains? Let’s not forget bag dispensers and trash bins, rest areas and bicycle racks.
Nelson ruled none of these in or out. Instead, he deferred any definition of amenities, leaving that to the future communications that will take place between the architect and property owners.