Thumbs down on boat ramp expansion

Published 2:53 pm Thursday, January 30, 2020

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A lengthy discussion period netted a ‘thumbs down’ for the expansion of Brogan’s Boat Ramp, a public access ramp located on Hwy. 33 in the southern tip of the county.

The Claiborne Commission voted 18 to 3 against resolution 2020-002, sponsored by 2nd district commissioner Nathan Epperson. Those voting in favor of the resolution were commissioners Epperson, Whitt Shuford and Charlton Vass.

The resolution would have given the go-ahead to apply for up to $500,000 in federal grant funds via the 2020Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) Program. If successful, the county would have matched the grant with $693,009 to complete the nearly $1.2 million expansion project.

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Claiborne would have had 3 years to pay off its grant match via a loan.

Project plans were geared toward improving the existing access with additional ramps and extended parking. A fish pond, walking trail and other improvements were worked into the plans as well.

“If we want to market tourism, we need to look into this,” said Epperson. “Norris Lake is the biggest asset we have. We need to draw people in to spend money with us to let our county grow. Right now, how we sit with our budget, we kind of just maintain it.”

Epperson said he thought the project would be a great way to raise revenues, ultimately drawing more businesses into the county.

County mayor Joe Brooks took a substantial amount of time during his power point presentation to detail the proposal.

“We have 32,000 people approximately living in Claiborne county, and the only way that we’re going to fund any progress moving forward is by your property tax dollars. If we want to grow Claiborne county, there’s one of two ways to do this – you can come and spend money or increase your property taxes,” said Brooks.

He estimated the public access ramp, when completed, would accommodate 250 boats – something needed before the county can attract special events like fishing tournaments.

“This would give us a much-needed revenue source that we don’t have. This will help us to do something to get opportunities in here,” said Brooks.

He cited increased interest by those willing to build chain restaurants and hotels/motels – something that is not feasible today due to the low county population.

He pointed to the cooperative effort the county has with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

“We are talking to TVA about one parcel of property, about entering into a 100 year lease, where the county can have control over that and we can be in charge of who’s investing, what they’re investing and what that outcome is going to look like. We’re looking at cabins and RV camping. That’s what we see the majority of TVA properties use across the region, right now,” said Brooks.

He said the infrastructure in the southern tip of the county would not currently support these long-term plans because of a lack of a sewer system.

During the discussion period, commissioner Steve Brogan said comparing Brogan’s Boat Ramp with others in Rhea and Hamblin counties is like comparing “apples and oranges.”

“Norris Lake is not even a fishing lake. People come from the north down here, but they don’t fish. They use their jet skis…The reason for that is they’re putting in restrictions as far as (the types) of boats (that can be used) due to erosion,” said Brogan.

Brooks countered by saying that Claiborne county is the number one across the state in sells of fishing licenses.

Commissioner Shawn Peters voiced his concerns about the project. He asked just how the county would go about paying the match. He also questioned the validity of promoting something that would add more traffic along the curvy portions of Hwy. 33.

“It seems to me that Union county would benefit as much, if not more than, Claiborne county…would you consider reaching out to them to see if they would be willing to partner with us in this project,” said Peters.

Brooks said the county is currently exploring opportunities. He said the county would not be opposed to Union county offering funds towards the project.

Commissioner Zach Mullins questioned the county’s priorities, pointing to the need for a working sewer system in the Springdale community.

“Are we going to put tourism over the cost of 300 kids getting an education that, maybe one day, will be business owners? I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. But, right now with the hand we’re dealt, I think we’d better be looking at this school (Springdale Elementary) over a boat ramp,” said Mullins.

A septic system was originally installed when the school was built in 1974. Over the decades, the septic tank has become all but obsolete with apparent rusting occurring.

“If this tank, which sits above-ground, does give out – right below from where this tank sits is a creek…This creek ultimately runs into Norris Lake. If this tank does give out, what kind of EPA fines are we looking at? Nobody’s going to want to fish in a Claiborne county septic tank. Nobody’s going to bring their jet skis and run up and down the lake. If that tank does rupture, where are we going to send 300 kids that go to Springdale School? Midway is overcrowded. SMMS is overcrowded. We would have to shut it down,” said Mullins.

He also pointed out that the water originating from the creek eventually moves down along Lone Mountain and to Clinch River – the very river that the Claiborne Utility District draws from to provide city water.

Mullins said he doubted that ARC would approve in the same year both the boat ramp expansion and the Springdale sewer project grants.

“We could get the same $500,000 (for the sewer project) for the estimated $977,000 (the cost of the total project). Talking to Nashville, we could get 75 percent to 80 percent of this paid for. We could have slim to nothing in it,” said Mullins.

He pointed to a drinking bottle filled with what was reportedly water taken from a Springdale resident’s tap. The water appeared to have a definite discoloration.

Mullins also brought photos which reportedly depicted raw sewage uncontained and floating.

Brooks said the county is currently under a four-year plan to lower the ammonia levels in the existing septic system. He said the problem had first come to light in 2012. He questioned why the district had taken so long to begin making plans to remedy the situation with the installation of a sewer system.

The call for a vote was made, effectively cutting any further discussion.

Following the meeting, Mullins said he wanted to make it clear that he was not able to work in an official capacity to alleviate this problem until elected county commissioner in August of 2018.