Friday, April 19, 2013

Small Town Politics and political philosophy

For those of you who have followed the discussion about "conservation easements" on Signal Mountain, the Town Council voted on April 14 to donate the right to control our public lands to a private land trust. The vote was 3-2 (Wallace and Gee voted to keep control of our public lands with the public), which might hopefully give the land trust second thoughts about getting into this local battle.

On a practical level, however the effects of this decision are practically nil. There is no development pressure on our public lands and, to my knowledge, there have been no proposals to sell any of our parks. Ironically, the only proposal I've ever heard of to sell Signal Mountain property to private development interests was the proposal by the same majority of Lusk, Robertson and Allen (who supported the easement scheme) to sell the town's ballfields, tennis courts and the Playhouse area to private developers for commercial development back when I was on the council. I was proud to oppose that effort. Just as ironically, it was the loud objections of the citizens of Signal Mountain that shut down that bad idea.

Which brings us to the real problem with this effort and the real attitude behind it. In the Community News this past Wednesday, Councilmember Susan Robertson is quoted as saying "People have asked me, 'don't you trust future Councils?' No, I don't...". Obviously, since our council is elected by the citizens of Signal Mountain, what Ms. Robertson is really saying is that she doesn't trust the citizens of Signal Mountain and is anxious to remove the citizens from the decision making process in the future (and it's important to remember that Ms. Robertson was originally appointed to the council). It is sometimes difficult to argue political philosophy and principle in these local issues, but this is really about the whole concept of democracy and self-rule. Our country is founded on the principle of self-rule and the rights of the people to make the laws, not on the principle of taking those rights away from the people. The fact that the group of us who have been most vocal on this issue (Jeff Duncan, Tish Gailmard, Noah Long, Joe Dumas, Bruce Caldwell and myself) represent the whole spectrum of political opinions from right to left shows that we feel strongly about the principle of self-determination and oppose the principle of one council attempting to bind the actions of a future council.

Since the vote was only to move forward with negotiations, there is still time to stop this misguided, if well-intentioned effort. I think it will also be important to look at the costs associated with this effort since all of these lands will need to be surveyed among other unknown costs. The upcoming budget discussions should be watched carefully for evidence of these costs.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Little Mermaid this weekend at CCA

Come see The Little Mermaid tonight (Thursday), Friday and Saturday night at 7pm at Center for Creative Arts ( This musical is based on the Disney movie by the same name and features (among many others) my daughter, Mary Eliza Hendricks as Scuttle the Seagull! A great show for kids of all ages.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

A better way to protect Signal Mountain's public lands

I am writing again about the issue of conservation easements on public lands in Signal Mountain. This is NOT about whether or not to conserve these lands. There is no evidence of any threat being posed to these lands. This is actually one of the ironies about the time being devoted to this topic which is essentially a solution in search of a problem. However, there is a principle involved of not constraining future generations right to make their own decisions. Thomas Jefferson said it well in 1786 : "this assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, [has] no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own."
Nonetheless, this issue seems to be moving forward "like a freight train going downhill" according to one knowledgeable participant. My friend, and former Parks Board member Dr. Jeff Duncan has developed an alternative proposal which not only protects these parks, but actually adds additional protections. While the "easement" plan has been proposed as ironclad, it could be overturned by a simple vote of a future Council through eminent domain. This would require two simple majority votes. The process proposed by Dr. Duncan would provide a much higher degree of protection. Jeff's comments are below:
Please see attached.  I believe this draft ordinance offers a win-win solution for the land protection issue.  I'm about to send it to Council members in hopes it will be considered.  I'd be happy to answer any of your questions or consider modifications if needed.
Also, we need supporters.  Council needs to hear from folks both in support of this ordinance (assuming you support it) and more importantly against the conservation easement movement.  Please shake the bushes and get friends, spouse, and like-minded folks to email council and attend next week's meeting.
Thanks for your continued efforts, Jeff 423-718-2219.
Here are the Councilmembers and their email addresses:
Please copy Jeff Duncan ( with any comments you send or receive from the Council. Thank you.
This is Dr. Duncan's proposed ordinance:
An Ordinance Protecting Signal Mountain Parklands and Authorizing the Establishment of a Town Conservation Policy
WHEREAS, the Town Council of Signal Mountain believes that all land owned by the Town of Signal Mountain is held in trust for future generations by the Councils and Citizens of this community, and
WHEREAS, the woodlands, wetlands, streams, and open spaces of Signal Mountain help define the character of the town and, beyond that, each succeeding year brings us more information on how vital such natural lands are to our collective well-being and health of the world around us, and
WHEREAS, they are also buffers which mitigate the effect of reasonable development of private lands, and
WHEREAS, once converted to other use, such lands cannot be replaced and therefore short term needs and pressures do not justify endangering the environment of our town, county and state, and
WHEREAS, those who are most intimately associated with these lands are the most qualified to protect them, and
WHEREAS, the Town presently has several boards (i.e., Parks, Tree, Stormwater) focusing on environmental protection that operate independently and without cohesiveness,
ARTICLE 1. LAND PROTECTION POLICY:  The Town of Signal Mountain will protect its public lands and waters as its citizens and their elected officials deem necessary, free from residential or commercial development, and that the current Town Council of Signal Mountain affirms and continues in the wisdom of its predecessors in owning, protecting and maintaining the public lands of Signal Mountain. All existing Town-owned parklands will henceforth be encumbered by deed restrictions intended to limit develop exclusively to nature-based recreational interests.  The Town of Signal Mountain hereby adopts a policy of protecting its publically-owned parklands for the benefit and enjoyment of this and future generations.
ARTICLE 2. CREATION OF A CONSERVATION COMMISSION: A Town Conservation Commission is hereby established for the purposes of aiding and advising Town Council and the Planning Commission on issues related to the status, extent, and management of Town-owned parklands.  The Conservation Commission will create a Natural Resource Management Plan for Town-owned resources that will include an inventory of existing resources, threats, liabilities, and other management needs on Town-owned lands.  The Conservation Commission replaces the Park Board, Tree Board, and Stormwater Board but may, at the pleasure of Town Council, retain their current members to carry out the missions of each board as committees of the Conservation Commission in accordance with ARTICLE 7 herein.
ARTICLE 3. ZONING: A zoning classification is hereby created for all existing Town-owned parklands.  The new zoning classification will be termed “CONSERVATION LANDS.”
ARTICLE 4. LAND ACQUISITION: The Town is hereby authorized to receive donated parcels of land in fee simple and/or conservation easements from willing private donors/sellers for the purposes of conservation.  Upon concurrence of the Conservation Commission and majority vote by the Council, the Town may purchase lands from willing sellers for the purposes of conservation.  Such land may be encumbered by existing conservation easement with a third party land trust at the time of donation to the Town. 
ARTCILE 5. PARTNERSHIP FOR LAND PROTECTION: That the Conservation Commission is hereby authorized to work with external partners such as land trusts, non-governmental organizations, and government agencies to improve natural resource protection on private lands within the Town or on public lands not owned by the Town.
ARTICLE 6. CONSERVATION TOOLKIT: That the Conservation Commission is hereby authorized to develop a Conservation Toolkit of Best Management Practices to benefit Town government and residents of the community.  The Conservation Toolkit will consist of a non-binding list of environmentally sound recommendations covering topics such as yard maintenance, fertilizers, pesticides, invasive species, water conservation, run-off, energy conservation, etc.  While the Toolkit will be non-binding to residents not withstanding existing regulations, Town Council, at the request and recommendation of the Conservation Commission, may compel Town employees carrying out their duties on Town-owned lands or facilities to adopt some or all of the Toolkit’s provisions.
ARTICLE 7. MEMBERSHIP and ADMINISTRATION OF CONSERVATION COMMISSION: That the Conservation Commission shall consist of 9 members each appointed by the Town Council for 3 year terms.  Commission members can be reappointed for subsequent terms. The Commission shall convene regularly monthly meetings in public and produce and retain publically viewable notes or minutes.  The Commission shall make recommendations on conservation issues germane to the Town Council upon their request.
ARTICLE 8. In keeping with the spirit of Article 1 herein, and to limit legislative entrenchment, the Town Council shall not authorize the transfer of any Town-owned parklands to any third party entity without the unanimous approval of the Conservation Commission, and any measure intended to transfer ownership of Town-owned parklands or to convert them to other non-park uses, and any measure to overturn or amend this ordinance, must be passed by a majority vote of two consecutive Town councils separated in time by a general election.