Does encouraging developers to preserve as many historical/cultural artifacts as possible when planning new subdivisions mean they must protect relics of the past such as abandoned coal mines?
That’s the concern that led Signal Mountain Council member Bill Wallace – a retired WRCB-TV news director who now works as a realtor – to cast the sole vote against amending the current zoning ordinance so that it conforms to new subdivision regulations passed earlier this year by the town’s planning commission.
The subdivision regulations incorporate the concept of “conservation development,” which promotes designs mindful of natural features and requires that 25 percent of the buildable land be preserved. In exchange, developers are allowed to build on smaller lots, reducing their infrastructure costs. Consequently, according to a member of the town’s planning commission, the group has received no complaints from developers or landowners about the final version of the new regulations.
Nevertheless, council member Wallace said, “To me, it favors conservation over development . . . (and) there are a lot of old coal mines up there.”
Most town officials, including Mayor Bill Lusk, disagreed. “I do not share his concerns,” the mayor said in a one-sentence statement.
Others expanded on that thought, pointing out what they believe are the flaws in Wallace’s reasoning.
To begin with, several said, the regulations encourage – rather than mandate – that historic and cultural features be preserved.
Further, they noted, the mines on Signal ran underground and would not be impacted by development of the land above them.
“As they were doing shaft mining, I can't think of any significant cultural features to preserve,” council member Annette Allen said. “It might be interesting to preserve a shaft entrance, but safety considerations would prevail.”
Mrs. Allen, who serves on the planning commission as well as the town council, said the reference to cultural and historic preservation is found in a “section designed to help the developer decide which sections of the property should ideally be set aside as conservation lands.”
“As you can see in Section 4-113.203 of the Subdivision Regulations, we encourage developers to include historic and cultural sites, along with areas with other specific features, in their conservation lands ‘to the fullest extent practicable,’ ” council member Allen explained.
“We developed these regulations,” she continued, “with both the undeveloped tracts of land in our town and the land in our urban growth boundary in mind . . . (O)ur intention is to encourage developers to be thoughtful about how they lay out their developments and make every attempt to preserve an old stone wall or an old barn or whatever they may find that represents a piece of the past or a way of life of those who used to inhabit the land . . . By preserving a stone wall, trail, or old barn (which may be the case in our urban growth boundary) the developer can enhance the neighborhood being created.”
Planning Commissioner Missy Cantrell said she believes council member Wallace’s fears grow out of zeroing in on “culture” as a stand-alone word, rather than looking at how the concept fits into the overall context of the proposed regulations, “a common mistake if one isn’t used to reading zoning ordinances.”
“It makes sense if you understand that we are allowing (not mandating) features of cultural heritage to be included in open spaces,” she said. “As to preservation over development, I believe both preservation and development are desirable, and not mutally exclusive.”
Forgotten, But Not Gone
Seven or eight decades ago, more than two dozen mines were a fact of life in the day-to-day existences of many Signal Mountain residents, who relied on them for their livelihoods.
“In the early days, coal mining was one of the few jobs available on Walden's Ridge,” according to an article written by retired engineer Joseph Petree which appeared in Volume 13, No. 2 of the Chattanooga Regional Historical Journal, “but mining became unprofitable in the 1950s.”
“Evidence of abandoned mines can still be seen,” Mr. Petree noted. “Old-timers remember miners with coal-blackened faces walking down Taft Highway after their day in the mine, or the slow pace of following heavy-laden coal trucks down the mountain.”
Today, half a century after they quit operating, some of the shafts – abandoned by their owners once they were no longer profitable – run under parts of the most desirable real estate in and around the town.
Topographical maps for the Edwards Point/Hidden Brook subdivision area, where Big Government Mine and Barnes Mine both operated, still indicate where they were located. Ditto for those depicting the Fairmount area, home to Doc Spangle and Tate mines.
Residents of streets around the old Rustic Villa subdivision/Timesville Road community don’t need maps to remind them the neighborhood is still home to remainders of abandoned mines such as Dill and Richard Lewis No. 8. Early this year a shaft caved in under Battles Lane, leaving the private road impassable until a contractor – paid by funds provided by the Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation division of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation – filled in the hole with gravel.
Are Abandoned Mines “Culture”?
Would remaining remnants of the mines have to be preserved under the new subdivision regulations?
It’s hard to tell, according to council member Wallace.
Part of the problem with the town’s new approach to cultural heritage, he said, is that “it wasn’t defined very well . . . It’s too broad.”
But spelling out the exact meaning of the term on paper, it turns out, isn’t easy. A quick Internet search, for example, turned up dozens of documents purporting to explain just what cultural heritage is, as well as why and how it should be preserved.
Often, they disagreed.
The Lawyer’s Committee For Cultural Heritage Preservation, a not-for-profit organization that fosters stewardship of “heritages” ranging from religious properties and sacred sites, to works of art and cultural history looted during times of armed conflict, came up with one of the most comprehensive and easy-to-understand definitions.
“While there is no universal definition of cultural heritage, it generally refers to the objects, places and traditions that define us as individuals, societies, nations, civilizations and even human beings,” according to the LCCHP website.
“It may be tangible, as in artifacts, antiquities, art, monuments, archaeological sites, historic buildings and sacred places” the definition continued. “Or intangible, such as knowledge, beliefs and practices. It can even be natural, for example, culturally significant landscapes.”
“It is a legacy that we inherit from past generations, which we have a responsibility to protect for the next,” it concluded.
That’s pretty much what he had in mind when he voted to amend the current zoning ordinance, Mayor Lusk said. “The definition provided by the LCCHP really does a good job of summing up my understanding of our intent with the zoning changes.”
Planning commissioner Cantrell and council member Allen concurred, and even council member Wallace found the LCCHP concept “a reasonable definition.”
“Maybe the planning commission should have considered similar language earlier,” he added.
Meanwhile, he said, his position remains unchanged.
“The council doesn’t need my vote to pass this since they already have a majority,” he explained. “However, I will continue to challenge their position.”