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Chancery Court to hear injunction request against BrightRidge

Chancellor John Rambo will hear a request from Washington County later this week asking for an injunction against BrightRidge regarding a zoning dispute involving a bitcoin mining operation in Limestone.

Rambo, who declined to issue a restraining order against the public utility on Monday, cited Rule 65.03(1) and ordered a hearing on the matter in Washington County Chancery Court at 9 a.m. Wednesday. In his order, the chancellor wrote he is calling for the hearing “so that plaintiff has the opportunity to notify defendant’s counsel of the request for the restraining order.”

Angela Charles, Washington County’s planning director, is listed as the plaintiff in a motion filed earlier Monday asking the court to issue an injunction against BrightRidge to prevent the energy authority from continuing operations on property it owns at 1444 Bailey Bridge Road that the county says are in violation of its zoning regulations.

Washington County alleges a bitcoin mining operation at the site does not conform with a “public utilities” zoning use permitted for the property under the county’s land use regulations.

Under the county’s zoning code, a public utility is defined as “a facility providing a pubic service which is owned or authorized by a municipal, county, state or federal government in the provision of such services as transportation, water supply, sewerage treatment, electricity, natural gas and telephone, telegraph and microwave transmission.”

At the request of officials from BrightRidge, Washington County commissioners voted in February 2020 to rezone the tract from A-1 general agriculture district to A-3 agriculture/business district. The county says BrightRidge submitted a commercial zoning compliance permit in May 2020 for a “data center” on its newly rezoned property near its Phipps substation. That facility was described as consisting of “15 containers and their associated generators.”

Washington County’s complaint in Chancery Court alleges county commissioners first became aware that BrightRidge was in violation of the permitted zoning use for its Limestone property when residents in the neighborhood appeared during the public comment segment of their monthly meeting to voice their concerns about noise coming from the bitcoin operation.

Commissioners voted in September to ask their legal counsel to send a letter to officials at BrightRidge, informing them they have 30 days to discontinue the current use of their property.

Washington County Attorney Allyson Wilkinson told commissioners in October that Charles had sent such a letter to BrightRidge and had inspected the property on Oct. 20, only to find the cyber-mining operations have not ceased.

The plaintiff also notes in its complaint: “BrightRidge exacerbates the problem by refusing to cease operations upon repeated written and verbal requests and referring Washington County to BrightRidge’s business partner, Red Dog Technologies LLC. Washington County has no relationship to this entity or any other business partner of BrightRidge’s and Tennessee law empowers this honorable court to enter a valid decree settling the rights between Washington County and BrightRidge.”

In asking for injunctive relief on Monday, the county said it would show that as a result of BrightRidge’s conduct, the plaintiff “has immediate and irreparable injury, loss and damage that require immediate review.”

Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy acquires 150 acres for Roan Mountain State Park

ROAN MOUNTAIN — When the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy acquires land, it usually plans to hold the land permanently to protect the unique high elevation plant and animal habitats from the Roan Highlands to the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

But the agency recently purchased 150 acres adjoining Roan Mountain State Park in order to add the land to the park, while still meeting its goal of protecting habitats and the steams of the Doe River watershed.

“I’m thrilled we had the opportunity to help our partners at Tennessee State Parks expand one of the most beloved parks in the state,” Michelle Pugliese, the conservancy’s land protection director, said. “From the higher elevations on the property where you can enjoy views of the Roan Massif to the beautiful stretch of stream, this property offers exciting opportunities for people to connect with nature.”

The tract contains richly biodiverse habitat and mountain wetland areas. Five species of state-listed rare plants have been identified on the property, including round-leaf bittercress and Roan Mountain sedge. The forested property adjoins the state park along the eastern edge, rising to a ridgeline approximately 2,000 feet behind the park’s visitor center and stretching from Sugar Hollow Road to Hampton Creek Road.

“The Sugar Hollow addition to Roan Mountain State Park will provide park visitors an opportunity to reach a view of the Roan Highlands via trail access from our visitor center and will protect, in perpetuity, critical habitats for sensitive species found throughout the property,” Daniel Chuquin, real property manager at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said. “This valuable acquisition was made possible through a partnership with SAHC, who worked diligently to raise funds and secure the state’s interest in the property. SAHC’s ability to support the state through this acquisition is a key example of how their passion for land conservation will help protect land for the enjoyment of numerous generations to come.”

The route of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail passes along the lower edge of the property, and both Sugar Hollow Creek and the main branch of Hampton Creek run through it. In the spring, exceptional displays of wildflowers emerge across the property; it has a little something to interest everyone. Reflecting on her favorite experiences while visiting the area, Pugliese described views of the surrounding Appalachian grassy balds from the higher elevation spots on the tract, near the existing park border, as well as the relaxing environs of the stream area at the lower elevation.

“I can just imagine the Overmountain Men on their way to the historic Revolutionary War battle at Kings Mountain in 1780 trekking right by this property, perhaps even stopping to rest and refill their water or maybe even catch some fish,” she said.

Another player in the acquisition was Roan Mountain State Park Manager Monica Johnson. She noticed the landowners had decided to sell the property and had listed it on the real estate market. She immediately let the staff of the Tennessee Department of Conservation, which manages Tennessee’s state parks, know about the opportunity. She also let the conservancy know the land was on the market.

“This was a great opportunity for SAHC and Tennessee State Parks to work together to secure what will become the first major addition of land to Roan Mountain State Park since it opened in 1959,” Johnson said. “We could not have done it without the help of SAHC and its members, and we look forward to protecting and preserving these 150 acres for future generations to enjoy.”

With such a desirable property on the market, everyone knew they had to move quickly to purchase it or else risk losing the fleeting opportunity. The conservancy and several partners worked together to find a solution. Philanthropic leaders Brad and Shelli Stanback, along with other SAHC members contributed a portion of the funds for the acquisition. The nonprofit land trust also obtained a loan from a conservation-minded lender in order to finance the balance of the funds needed for the purchase price. When the conservancy transfers the property to the State of Tennessee to be added to the park, it will use those proceeds to pay back the loan and interest.

“We are so pleased to be able to help our partners secure land for the state park, and grateful to all the generous supporters of conservation who made it possible,” Pugliese said. “With a complex, time-sensitive project and the popularity of the park area for outdoor recreation, the outcome could have been very different. Development of this tract could have been devastating, marring views from public lands at Roan Mountain and the Appalachian Trail. We are all indeed fortunate that this land has been conserved for posterity.”

This youth entry is by Hadley Vines.

Elizabethton Chamber of Commerce

Washington County schools drop face mask requirements

The Washington County School System has ended its face mask requirement.

Jerry Boyd, the county’s director of schools, has informed parents that as a result of Gov. Bill Lee signing recently-passed COVID-19 legislation into law on Friday, “Washington County Schools will no longer have a face covering requirement for any student, employee or visitor in any school building or bus.”

Earlier this year, the system adopted a policy requiring students, teachers and others on school grounds to wear face masks.

However, pursuant to an order by the governor limiting a school system’s ability to mandate face coverings, parents were allowed to opt their children out of the local mask requirement

“Effective immediately, face coverings are optional,” the new directive says. “Individual employees and students may continue to wear face coverings for personal protection if they so choose.”

Officials with Johnson City Schools announced on Friday that their system has also ended its mask requirement.

The city mask policy allowed parents to opt their children out of the requirement by filling out an online form. As a result, nearly a quarter of the school system’s students were exempted from the policy.

Last week, the governor signed into law legislation passed by the state General Assembly to prohibit local governments from implementing COVID-19 mandates and preventing private businesses from taking action against unvaccinated employees.

Lee also signed a new law requiring school systems to follow an intricate process before requiring face masks on a school-by-school basis.

Under the new law, Tennessee’s commissioner of health has the only authority to determine quarantine guidelines. The Northeast Regional Health Department will be responsible for all contract tracing of COVID-19 cases in Washington County, including any communication to a resident of an exposure to a positive COVID-19 case.

Officials with Washington County Schools say the system “will continue to follow all allowable measures to prevent the spread of any communicable disease that could endanger the health of either an individual or others in the regular school setting.”

The directive also notes: “If or when an individual student or employee has a communicable disease that may endanger the health of either himself or herself or other individuals in a school setting, the individual will be excluded from the school setting until certification is obtained from a physician or the county Health Department that the disease is no longer communicable.”

Further information and updates on the pandemic policy for Washington County Schools can be found at www.wcde.org.

ETSU coach Randy Sanders calls a play during Saturday’s 27-20 win over VMI.