I have said this before, but one of the surprises of driving around and examining parks or even potential greenway space within Hamilton County for this series is that I am seeing parts of greater Chattanooga I have never seen before.
Such was the case again on Saturday, when I decided to head to the east/northeast part of the county to check out Standifer Gap Park.
I also wanted to look for potential future greenway space off at least one of the busier roads in Ooltewah – you know the ones where at least two or three major rezoning proposals are heard seemingly every local planning commission meeting.
And when I went up Snow Hill Road, I was blown away by all the houses and developments. As somebody once said, where did all these houses and people come from? And I thought maybe North Chattanooga and downtown Chattanooga were getting a little crimped with extra housing.
To begin my examination, I left my home near Northgate Mall around 11:45 a.m. after an early lunch, and thought I was going to Standifer Gap Park up somewhere near Ooltewah on the outskirts of East Brainerd. I realized I must have overshot it but decided to go check out a road in Ooltewah for potential park space. So, I got there via Old Lee Highway between exits 9 and 11 off Interstate 75.
I chose Snow Hill Road west of the interstate, and I worked my way through traffic up to the area where the Publix is and where you turn left. I had always wondered why there was so much traffic on U.S. 11 off Exit 11, and I was soon to find out why.
I began driving north on Snow Hill Road past a nice and wooded buffer area on the left and some handsome remaining rolling pastureland on the right a little past Ooltewah High School.
But that was going to be almost it. On the north end of the pastures, some development was under way, and some land had been scraped – a contractor’s equivalent of surgery prep. And then on the left, I soon came upon Thunder Farms, about which I had heard much over the years due to developer John “Thunder” Thornton and one famous resident named Peyton Manning.
As expected, Thunder Farms was a gated community. But what I did not expect is that the subdivision road appeared to be going downhill almost from the entrance.
As I drove on along Snow Hill Road, I came across more and more developments and houses. You had your 1970s era homes built along the road as non-farm development was first coming, and you had both upscale and medium-level housing developments built in the last 10 or 20 years.
You also had a few nice homes built on lots of 5 or 10 acres.
I also eventually came across a golf course, which was apparently the Ooltewah Club and formerly the Champions Club at Hampton Creek. I also passed an area where an inlet of Lake Chickamauga, Savannah Bay, came on both sides of the road and had housing surrounding it.
Needless to say, the developers have become quite aware of this area, and plenty of people are wanting to live there, due to the newness, niceness and maybe proximity to Interstate 75.
But I did see a few reminders of the former bucolic setting, and that was my focus as someone looking for potential parkland on this day. Here and there, I saw a shrinking number of fields and handsome old barns, including a beautiful complex of vintage barns across from the entrance to Thunder Farms.
I also saw a priceless small brick house that looked almost old enough for a 19th century president to have slept there, and a charmingly modest but slightly rundown wooden frame rural home that maybe could have housed a pioneering Ooltewah resident of yesteryear.
I loved them both and would almost die to have them. The brick home was actually for sale.
Also seen was one small place where pretty horses were kept, but they were badly outnumbered by the rezoning signs I saw at different places.
Unless I was mistaken and there is a small park or even ballfield a few feet down a side road from Snow Hill Road, I did not really see a single park space open to everyone.
If I were a county official or planning commissioner or even a developer, I would encourage at least 20 acres or so of one of these few undeveloped places to be preserved for passive recreation, with only a walking path and maybe a restroom. I would do that even if there is already some publicly accessible open space.
It seems a park like that is needed within a 5-to-7-minute drive of this heavily developed area.
Still quite overwhelmed at all the houses I saw in the popular residential area, and realizing how hard it was to stop and take pictures of the remaining pastoral scenes due to traffic, I finally found on my phone where Standifer Gap Park is after driving back to near the Publix. It was off Exit 7, down Jenkins Road near the freeway and left at Standifer Gap Road until you get to the 8300 block.
I had not been to this area since last spring’s Eastertime tornado, but as soon as I began driving, I realized I was in the heart of where the storm had hit. Trees were still down everywhere, a number of homes still had visible damage, and I saw streets with now-familiar names heard or seen on news reports.
It was a humbling and almost-heart-breaking experience driving through this area that had probably been an Ooltewah-like boom area in the 1960s and ‘70s.
I finally came upon Standifer Gap Park on the left. Knowing it was a sports recreation area rather than a greenway park, I was not expecting much. And it turned out to be pretty much what I thought.
Behind a fire hall on the left, the county-owned facility features eight tennis courts, four baseball fields, one football field, a playground, a beach volleyball court, and a walking path just over a half mile long. There was enough grass and the park was big enough for someone like me to enjoy taking a 30-minute jog without getting too bored if I lived nearby and wanted to use it often for convenience.
It also had a permanent restroom facility, which is always a plus and should be mandatory, as it usually is.
And the walking path did wind around enough to also keep one’s interest.
This park looked very much 1960s or ‘70s era, which I liked, but other than that it did not have enough aesthetics for a picky park user like me. The most interesting aspect of it, other than the neat concrete and rock runoff ditches for the two-level land, was a little Yorkie-like dog who was watching me with curiosity while being walked.
The small dog did seem genuinely content, and the park was good enough for him or her. And no telling how many little league ballplayers, football players and tennis players have rich memories of important sports participation moments inside this park.
If I lived in this part of town, though, I would probably opt for exercising at the beautiful Jack Benson Heritage Park, with occasional visits to the farther-away Enterprise South Nature Park (during non-vaccination times) and Collegedale Greenway.
While Standifer Gap Park appears to not have been damaged by the tornado like places just a few hundred yards away, I might do a little rejuvenation to it anyways. I would plant a few more trees, even though a handful exist, and maybe reconfigure all the surface parking places to allow for more grass and eye-pleasing open space.
This recreational complex is obviously much better than no park, though. And it does help create at least some sort of oasis amidst the daily storm of constantly flowing traffic heading to hundreds of nearby suburban homes and businesses.
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To see the previous story in this series, read here.
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