Ten years after Red Bank officials agreed to a land swap that allowed Red Bank Middle School to be built on what had been municipal park land, the town still hasn’t kept its end of the bargain.
Now, state and federal officials are calling its bluff.
The fact that Red Bank did not meet its obligations under the 2011 land swap agreement could come back to haunt it the next time the town seeks a grant administered by the Recreation Educational Services division of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).
The town’s non-compliant status “would impact scoring criteria,” confirmed Kim Schofinski, acting TDEC deputy communications director.
On May 22, TDEC sent a terse letter to Red Bank Mayor Ruth Jeno, informing her that the agency had learned that Red Bank still has not replaced the former Morrison Springs Park property with new parks, and that the original land swap agreement has been rescinded by federal officials.
Red Bank’s non-compliance came to light during a review by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of Interior, the director of TDEC’s Recreation Educational Services Division told the mayor.
Consequently, “Red Bank will need to . .. replace the 14.6 acres taken out of inventory from Morrison Springs Park . . . The replacement property will need to be developed within three years of (reaching a new agreement) with NPS,” director Gerald F. Parish Jr. wrote.
Meeting that requirement is easier said than done, according to Tim Thornbury, Red Bank City Manager.
The reasons the town never fulfilled its obligations under the original agreement are complex, he said. For one thing, “there was a change in officials at that time” because some of the council members who originally approved it – including Mayor Joe Glasscock – lost their bids for reelection in 2010.
Now that the agreement has been rescinded, the current city manager said, Red Bank is free to do as it wishes with the three properties previously designated as replacements for the former park. They include two non-contiguous parcels of land on Stringer's Ridge, he said, and a third parcel on Dayton Boulevard.
The town still owns the three commercially zoned acres at 3715 Dayton Boulevard which were supposed to have been used to help replace Morrison Springs Park, he said.
However, current Red Bank officials are reluctant to see that property – a portion of the site where the former Red Bank Middle School was located – developed as a park, according to Mr. Thornbury.
On Sept. 1 the town sent out an exploratory request for proposals to real estate investors interested in purchasing 3715 Dayton Boulevard and then developing it. Those RFPs are due back early in January, he said.
Mr. Thornbury said he has been searching for a large tract of land located within or adjoining Red Bank which the town could purchase and use as a replacement for Morrison Springs Park.
Recreational developments such as parks are allowed anywhere in town, regardless of how the land they’re build on is zoned, he said. “But finding 13 to 14 acres of contiguous land is difficult.”
Simply recreating the agreement reached in 2011 isn’t an option.
That agreement was flawed, according to Gwenevere Smith, chief of the Recreation Programs Branch of the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“The primary reason for revisiting (the issue) was that the replacement properties were not developed and/or opened to the public within three years . . . in accordance with (the agreement),” she said on May 15 in a letter to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
That means the city of Red Bank is now required to find appropriate replacement property(ies) for Morrison Springs Park, she wrote. “Please keep in mind that (federal) standards must be followed for all appraisals . . . .”
Proposed replacement properties must meet recreational usefulness standards, she said. Further, they must be appraised according to both National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requirements.
The 2010 land swap agreement, spearheaded by former then-Mayor Glasscock, was intended to clear the way for Hamilton County Department of Education to build a new middle school on the 14.6-acre site of then-Morrison Springs Park.
Negotiations were complicated by the fact that Red Bank had received federal grant money to build the park, and agreed to stipulations that it would remain a municipal park forever.
However, Mayor Glasscock and other officials argued at the time, those obstacles could be overcome by building new parks on equally valuable land to replace the old one.
Toward that end, they said, the town would donate a three-acre chunk of land from the Dayton Boulevard site where the old middle school stood. The remaining 10+ acres of replacement park were to be built on two donated parcels of land on Stringer’s Ridge valued at about $90,000.
That plan was, eventually, approved by both federal and state officials.
However, NPS Chief Smith said in her May 15 letter to TDEC, her agency’s recent review revealed a number of problems with the original agreement. They included, she said:
- The two non-contiguous parcels known as Stringer’s Ridge by themselves were and are not visible public recreation areas.
- The Dayton Boulevard parcel was and is not currently accessible from (Dayton Boulevard) or any other street, and no recreational facilities have been developed.
- Appraisals of the proposed replacement properties did not meet Uniform Appraisal Standards for Federal Land Acquisitions (UASFLA) standards.
Despite Red Bank officials’ efforts to find a way to make the 2011 agreement work, she noted, “the two non-contiguous parcels near Stringer’s Ridge, plus an additional parcel that would be contiguous to one of the original parcels, on their own still do not meet the viability requirement.”
“Considering these issues, we hereby rescind the March 14, 2011, approval of the partial conversion,” Ms. Smith wrote.
The City of Red Bank will be required to find appropriate replacement property(ies) for the former Morrison Springs Park that meet the standards for recreational usefulness, she noted.
“Please keep in mind that UASFLA standards must be followed for all appraisals,” she said.
Stefanie Dalton, candidate for Red Bank Commission District 2, said, "As a Red Bank citizen, I was extremely shocked and disappointed to read about our local government’s shameless lack of transparency and accountability around the land conversion of the old Red Bank Middle School property. And not just shocked and disappointed, but angry. As a candidate for the Red Bank Commission District 2 seat, I was further appalled to discover how little integrity our leaders have shown not just to the federal government, but also to our beloved citizens. When our government signs a contract making them accountable to the federal government but then fails to do their due diligence, we have considerable cause for concern. How can we know if they are trustworthy to carry out other decisions, projects, and contracts on our behalf?
"This gross mismanagement of the agreement made with the U.S. Department of the Interior has serious implications for Red Bank’s future. Not only has this poor City government process hindered Red Bank’s growth and development, it has also “red-flagged” our beautiful community as non-compliant. If the City does not fulfill its promise to replace at least 13 acres of the park land it allowed to be built over at the former Morrison Springs Park and to permanently preserve it for the recreational use of our citizens, the City is looking at the potential loss of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in future grant money.
"The City Manager’s weak response to this serious non-compliance was to say, 'There was a change in officials at that time.' I’m sorry – do our city government’s work, promises, and obligations stop just because we have new leadership? And what about the promise to our citizens for nearly 10 years for park space at the 3715 Dayton Boulevard old Red Bank Middle School property? Our leaders are now brazenly saying they are 'reluctant to see that property … developed as a park.' This is unacceptable."
"We need to act today so these mistakes do not cost taxpayers tomorrow. That starts with electing leaders who are committed to upholding truth, integrity, transparency, and accountability and who prioritize service over self-interest. Red Bank citizens deserve a better quality of life, and now is the time to demand compassionate, concerned leaders who will place the highest value not on maximizing profits but on the people that make up our wonderful community."