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A fight over a ‘road to nowhere’

Litton Covered Bridge Road east of Huntsville hasn't been touched by a road maintenance crew in decades. So why is it stirring such debate?

Litton Covered Bridge Road east of Huntsville hasn’t been touched by a road maintenance crew in decades. So why is it stirring such debate?

HUNTSVILLE — Steve Howard considers himself a man of his word. So his message to Scott County Commission is clear: “If they think I’m not going to do what I say, they’re in for a surprise.”

Howard doesn’t mince words. The days for mincing words, he says, are over. If those days didn’t pass in May 2016, when County Commission rejected a petition to close Litton Covered Bridge Road, they’ve passed at some point since, as the battle over the deteriorated road has played out before the commission and in the courts.

“At this point, I don’t care what they think of me,” Howard says of County Commission. “I’m over it.”

The final straw may have been when he had words with a commissioner in a hardware store last month. Or it might have been when another commissioner visited the property he owns with his wife, Marla, and told the Howards it was wrong for them to deny the public access to their property. It might have even been when an anonymous caller to a local television talk show — R.L. Gibson’s “Scott County Issues” — called for the Howards to be arrested.

Chances are, though, that the final straw came on May 16, 2016 — the day County Commission rejected his plea to close the old road. Howard vowed that night he would never step foot before the commission again. Fourteen months later, he still hasn’t.

But that doesn’t mean the fight is over. Not by a long shot.

A contentious debate

The subject of Litton Covered Bridge Road was quiet for much of the summer of 2016 and the winter that followed, after County Commission voted in May 2016 to reject a petition by the Howards and fellow landowner Daniel Posey to permanently close the road through their property that borders New River and Paint Rock Creek. But by the time commissioners met in work session earlier this month, the heated topic was back to a boiling point.

It was at that meeting on July 3 that 4th District County Commissioner Rick Russ — one of three commissioners who have opposed the idea of closing the road from the beginning — called Road Superintendent Dick Sexton to the mat over Sexton’s refusal to reopen the road, which has ostensibly been closed for repairs.

“I’m asking you professionally now, please open the road up,” Russ told Sexton, implying that Sexton was ignoring commissioners’ directive to keep the road open.

Sexton declined, saying the road will remain closed until the road department obtains the funds to repair it or unless the county agrees to accept liability for the deteriorated roadway.

To this point, neither has happened.

Three weeks later, with County Commission and the road department apparently at an impasse, the locked gate remains in place where J.R. Hembree’s property ends and the Howards’ begins. Sexton has not ruled out reopening the road — “I’m not saying I won’t open the road,” he said at the meeting earlier this month — but simply opening the gate isn’t going to end the battle, either.

Historical connotations

Litton Covered Bridge Road may be rutted and fit only for four-wheel-drive vehicles these days, but it wasn’t always that way. It was once a major thoroughfare between Huntsville and Jacksboro — the only way to get from the Scott County seat to the Campbell County seat.

In those days, before State Highway 63 and Interstate 75 were built, Litton Covered Bridge Road was known as the Huntsville to Jacksboro Road. Some property deeds along the roadway still refer to it that way. Exactly when it became a public road is unclear; the Howards’ deeds refer to it as a wagon road. But it is known when it ceased to be a public thoroughfare: its namesake over Paint Rock Creek was burned twice in the 1970s and was not rebuilt after the second time. In 1980, the county court — a forerunner to County Commission — deemed the road closed on the eastern side of the creek; the road easement from the creek to Railey Lane near Winona reverted to private property.

Ironically, one of those on hand when Litton Covered Bridge was being rebuilt in the 1970s was a young kid named Steve Howard. His father, local builder Ray Howard, was supervising the crew tasked with building back the bridge, and Howard tagged along with his father to the job site.

Howard never envisioned that he would one day own the property on either side of the bridge, much less be involved in a contentious debate over the road leading to it. But these days, he himself is a bridge-builder. The bridges he builds are much larger; his company, Twin K Construction, contracts with the Tennessee Department of Transportation to build concrete behemoths that make the old Litton Covered Bridge pale in comparison. But he says one day he will rebuild the old bridge across Paint Rock Creek. And it will be a covered bridge — just like the old days.

Part of Howard’s inspiration is nostalgia. Another part of it is simply a desire to build things. I’m a bridge-builder,” he says. “It’s what I do.”

His wife has grander plans. Marla Howard envisions a place where couples can hold rustic wedding ceremonies. The covered bridge would be a perfect backdrop for photos, and it has always been a romantic destination of sorts; the Howards recall a story by Huntsville alderman Jim Morrow, who proposed to his wife, Angela, on the bridge.

Howard isn’t so certain about his wife’s plans for the property, and he says so. But one thing they’re both sure of: everything is on hold until the legal battle over the old road bisecting their property is behind them.

Battle lines

If Steve Howard is steadfast in his will to fight Scott County over control of the old Litton Covered Bridge Road, his wife may be even moreso.

“I’m mad,” Marla Howard admits.

It isn’t hard to sense that anger when she speaks. She is vexed that County Commission rejected their bid to have the old road closed. After all, she says, it hasn’t been touched by a county road maintenance crew in decades and serves no useful purpose. Even if motorists can drive on the road, they can’t get out of their vehicle. To do so would be to trespass on the Howards’ property. They own either side of the roadway, which by definition is a maximum of 15 ft. in width. They don’t own the waters of New River, which by state law is considered a navigable waterway and therefore belongs to the state. But they do own the waters of Paint Rock Creek. And they own the shoreline along New River.

The Howards admit that they expected County Commission to side with them in their bid to close the old road. Initially, it appeared that might happen. Commissioners gave an initial okay to close the road by a 10-3 vote. Only Russ, 3rd District Commissioner Sheila Buttram and 5th District Commissioner Trent Cross voted against it.

But after an angry audience packed the Scott County Office Building’s conference room at a public hearing a month later, the vote was reversed, and commissioners voted 10-3 to keep the road open. Only 1st District Commissioner Blue Day, 3rd District Commissioner Ernest Phillips and 5th District Commissioner Robyn McBroom voted to close it.

The members of the public who showed up to state their case won over a majority of the commissioners with their pleas to keep the road open.

“What gets me is they think 10 or 20 people who ring their phones off the hook are representative of what the majority want,” Marla Howard says. “And even if they were, right is right and wrong is wrong.”

The Howards understand the nature of the fight: those who agree that closing the road is the right move for Scott County aren’t the ones who are apt to show up and state their opinion in a public forum. Those who oppose the road’s closure are passionate about the issue, and are always going to show up.

Those who fall into the latter group are driven mostly by nostalgia. One by one, they stood up at last spring’s public hearing to talk about how they’ve used Litton Covered Bridge Road to visit the river and the falls of Paint Rock Creek over the years. Among them were a lawyer, a doctor and plenty of just ordinary, everyday people.

One of those is Jennifer Allen. She lives on Litton Covered Bridge Road — before the proposed point of closure — just like generations of her family before her.

“this is a hot subject for the people that live on this road,” Allen said. “My great-grandparents have had access to this road for many years that we have lived here and why should we be punished for stuff that others have done?

“I’m tired of fighting for it but the elders that live here aren’t and they say they are gonna fight until the end,” she added.

That is the nature of this battle. It has pitted neighbor against neighbor. Even the two 3rd District commissioners who represent the Howards are split on the issue. Buttram, who recently visited the property and talked with the Howards, has steadfastly opposed closing the road, while Phillips is one of only three commissioners to consistently vote to close it.

One of the commissioners who was swayed by the arguments against closing the road was the 2nd District’s June Jeffers. She accompanied Buttram and road superintendent Sexton to visit the Howards on a recent trip to the property and says she is not ready to change her mind.

“How long has that road been there?” she asks. “It’s been there longer than me or you either one. It needs to stay open.”

To a point, the Howards say they understand the argument against closing the road. Steve Howard admits he used to visit the property in his youth, as well. “I never gave a thought to who owned it,” he says.

But that was then and this is now. Now the Howards own the property. They say their interest is in protecting their investment.

“You can’t let the public have free reign over your property. You just can’t,” Howard says. “It’s not like it was a hundred years ago.”

Not that the Howards are the first property owners to fight the battle against trespassers on Litton Covered Bridge Road. Posey, whose property they are in the process of acquiring, had a gun pulled on him by trespassers 20 years ago.

The Howards are different in that they were thrust into the spotlight by their request to have the road closed — and by their refusal to take no for an answer. But even on that point they may not be alone. Another property owner along the road — J.R. Hembree — has let the office of County Mayor Dale Perdue know that he wants the road closed at his property line, which begins shortly after the road’s intersection with Natural Bridge Road. That also just happens to be the point at which routine maintenance of the road ends.

Hembree’s request hasn’t been formally taken up by County Commission, and its resolution will likely depend on the final outcome of the Howards’ battle to close the road further down.

Continue reading this cover story in this week’s Independent Herald.

By | July 24th, 2017|0 Comments

Summer: No return in sight

It continues to look as though our brief flirtation with a true mid-south summer will not repeat itself anytime soon.

After two scorching weeks in the Cumberlands, models are consistently portraying cooler temperatures to close out the month of July and begin the month of August, as summer vacation ends and the new school year begins for students.

Technically, there’s still plenty of time left for summer’s return; our average daily temperature has just now plateaued, and its decline is typically stubborn over the next 5-6 weeks on the calendar. The average daily high in Oneida is 86 for this time of year, drops to 85 by the last day of July, and then has dropped only to 84 by the last day of August, at which point the descent into autumn accelerates its pace.

But in a topsy-turvy summer that has featured far more below-average temperatures than above-average temperatures, there’s no safe bet on whether we’re going to see the scorching temps of late make a return once they’ve left us later this week.

The next couple of days will continue to be quite warm, perhaps even above-average. The GFS forecast model’s output statistics suggest a high of 86 on Tuesday and 87 on Wednesday with little chance for rain either day. But then a frontal boundary swings through to close out the week, and temperatures will fall on the back side of it. The latest run of the GFS suggests highs that struggle to get out of the 70s for several consecutive days beginning Friday, with quite a bit of rain from Thursday into Saturday. The National Weather Service’s forecast is a bit warmer than that, with highs in the low 80s through the weekend and a return to the mid 80s on Monday, but the general idea is that cooler weather is approaching.

After that, we may stay relatively cool for this time of year for a while. The GFS suggests that after Wednesday, we won’t see a temperature reading higher than 85 degrees for the next 13 days, which takes us nine days deep into August. And that mid-80 projection occurs just one day on the GFS. Overall, the model’s current look features far more days with temps in the 70s than with temps in the 80s for the next 15 days. And considering the GFS has consistently been a few degrees too warm this summer, who knows if we’ll even be as warm as the model is currently suggesting.

The GFS is also quite wet for the next 15 days. Today’s run suggests a total of seven inches of rain for the northern plateau, which would be unusual for this time of year if it pans out.

Not surprisingly, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is now forecasting below-average temperatures for much of the nation’s mid-section, including Tennessee, for the next 14 days (beginning later this week). For weeks 3-4 (Aug. 5-18), the CPC shows the cooler air retreating as warm air builds into Texas and the southern plains, but it keeps colder-than-normal air centered over the Great Lakes and much of the Midwest, with equal chances for warmer-than-average or colder-than-average temperatures in between.

If we do manage to make it three weeks into August with temperatures that are below-average, we’ll be on the downhill side of summer for sure. Labor Day will mark the unofficial end of summer just a couple of weeks later, and September almost always features falling temperatures.

What happens after that is a guessing game. For what it’s worth, the CPC is forecasting above-average fall temperatures for the entire U.S. — both the continental U.S. and Alaska — for the months of August-October. I would hardly take that forecast as the gospel at this point, though. Chances are, if Alaska sees above-average temps through the fall months, someone in the Lower 48 is going to experience below-average temps.

The really weird thing about this summer? Even as warm as we’ve been the past couple of weeks, we’ve still seen only two days thus far with temps of 90 or above (we hit 90 on June 14 and July 21). Those are official NWS readings in Oneida. (The data for Saturday-Monday has not yet been recorded, but it seems doubtful that we quite made it to 90 on any of those days.) Contrast that with last summer, which featured more than 30 days with 90+ temps.

I know what some of you are saying — Garrett is off his rocker. After all, we’ve all seen the Facebook photos of thermometers reading in the upper 90s and even low 100s, right? The problem is, those home readings are notoriously inaccurate. They’re usually taken from a thermometer that is placed in direct sunlight or, even worse, a car thermometer. Neither is reliable for a correct temperature reading.

Just to be sure, I glanced at this summer’s data from both Jamestown and Crossville, the two other northern plateau towns that are similar in elevation to Oneida. Neither location has hit 90 degrees even once this summer.

By | July 24th, 2017|0 Comments

Beware of this social media network…

A new social media network that is taking the digital world by storm should probably raise a few red flags for parents.

It’s called Sarahah, and it has quickly become all the rage among teens and preteens.

Designed by a Saudi developer earlier this year, Sarahah is an anonymous instant messaging platform. It was originally intended to allow employees to send “constructive” messages to their bosses — anonymously, obviously. Or, as it describes itself, “Sarahah helps you in discovering your strengths and areas for improvement by receiving honest feedback from your employees and your friends in a private manner.”

It caught on quickly in the Middle East, then was introduced to the Apple App Store last month. It has been trending in the app store for the past couple of weeks after teens began linking it to their Snapchat and Instagram profiles.

This is the way it works in teen circles: kids link their Sarahah account to Snapchat or Instagram, encouraging their friends to send them anonymous messages. They then post those messages back to Snapchat or Instagram.

You can imagine the potential for trouble with such an app (which isn’t the first of its kind, but the speed at which it is being adapted by young users has raised eyebrows). And if you immediately think “bullying” and “hate,” you aren’t alone.

Sarahah does not currently allow its users to respond to the messages they receive, so there’s at least one positive. But that’s what is leading the app’s younger users to post screenshots of the messages they receive on their other social media accounts — to encourage the unknown senders of messages they like to contact them.

As someone who has been around the online world for a while, I feel like we’ve gone full circle with apps like Sarahah. In the early days of the internet, when I myself was a teen, chatrooms and messageboards were all the rage. The precursors of the social media networks that we know today, chatrooms and messageboards allowed users to post anonymously, using a fictitious moniker. Not surprisingly, there was plenty of abuse…and that’s why they largely fell out of favor with internet users. Today, one of the few holdovers from this dinosaur era is Topix, a messageboard network that allows users to post anonymously. But even it is waning in popularity.

Not much good comes from anonymous messages on the internet, which is why the predecessors of Sarahah that were built on similar concepts have fallen by the wayside. (And although they deal with a completely different audience, it’s why more and more online news sites are no longer allowing comments on stories from anonymous users.)

That isn’t to say that bad things don’t happen when there is the accountability of everyone knowing who you are. Online bullying does happen with Facebook and Snapchat and all of the other social media networks where your identity is known. But as a general rule, teens and adults alike are much less likely to be hateful or abusive when they can’t hide behind a screen name.

Frankly, if there’s something to be said that someone doesn’t have the guts to say to my face (whether it’s good or bad), I don’t need to hear it. But I can see why an app like this is attractive to young people.

I allow my kids to use some social media networks — but only cautiously. I have their login information and I check regularly to see what they’re up to. When I see some of the stuff going on among their friends, I cringe, and the first time I saw Sarahah pop up a few weeks ago, I saw disaster written all over it.

If some parents saw the things that are being anonymously said to their kids on Sarahah (and I’m talking middle school-aged kids), and that those kids are then posting publicly for all the world to see, I bet they would be shocked.

Fortunately, experts say Sarahah is doomed to failure because of its flaws. I would say that’s a good thing. In the meantime, parents will want to be extra cautious of this one.

By | July 23rd, 2017|0 Comments

Scandal? What scandal?

Can you imagine if Watergate had played out in our modern political climate?

Forget the role of key Republicans — like Howard H. Baker and Fred Thompson — in bringing down a sitting Republican president. It wouldn’t have happened. Not in the current toxic climate that has enveloped Washington. In this climate, right vs. wrong takes a back seat to right vs. left.

I’m referring to the investigation into whether key members of Team Trump colluded with Russian officials during the 2016 election, of course. And the subsequent screeching by Republican loyalists that it needs to stop.

Oh, there are always going to be a core group of Americans who believe their president can do no wrong. Even Richard Nixon maintained a 25 percent approval rating until he flashed that famous peace sign and boarded a helicopter to leave town, which means one out of every four Americans either believed he was innocent in the Watergate mess, or didn’t care.

Trump’s approval rating is still hovering in the upper 30s. There’s plenty of time for it to drop further, because the Russia investigation hasn’t gotten anywhere near the level of the Watergate probe. But want to bet that Trump’s approval rating never drops as far as Nixon’s?

This is, after all, the man who bragged during the campaign that he could stand in the middle of New York City’s 5th Avenue and shoot someone, and his supporters would stand by him. He wasn’t wrong. He doesn’t have enough of those loyal supporters to push him to a second term in office, or to save the Republican Party from being set back decades by his antics, but he does have enough supporters to play an obstructionist role at every turn.

This is where we are in America, willing to forgive and forget that a sitting U.S. president worked with Russian authorities to undermine our election. One of my friends summed up the attitude of the entire Trump base last week when he said, “I’m sick of hearing about Russia.”

How sad is it that we’ve become so entrenched in our partisan divide that we’d rather stick our head in the sand about such things than actually get to the bottom of the truth? Those who are attempting to get to the bottom of this — special counsel Robert Mueller and the American press — are being ostracized by Trump and his operatives.

Trump’s approach is a true shoot-the-messenger campaign. New revelations that his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, lied about his involvement with Russian dignitaries during the campaign? Take to Twitter to blast the “illegal leaks” that the “Amazon Washington Post” used as the basis of its report. New revelations that his son, Donald Trump Jr., lied about his involvement with Russian operatives during the campaign? Claim that anyone would’ve done it, then launch an offensive against the New York Times.

Let’s make no mistake: the news media is vehemently anti-Trump, moreso than with any other president in American history. The press is at times making a mockery of itself in its quest to take down Trump. But Trump picked this battle. When you continuously poke a stick into a tiger’s cage, that tiger is eventually going to roar. I’m a reporter at a local level. If the county mayor’s office used every public meeting and public appearance to sling mud at me, you better believe I’d be motivated to work overtime in my effort to dig up some dirt to throw right back at him.

But all of that is neither here nor there. The bottom line is that the press is digging for the truth and finding plenty of destructive evidence. What motivation they have to obtain that info is immaterial.

So that brings us back to the investigation. While the Trump administration is attempting to undermine the press, Republicans both in and out of Congress are attempting to undermine Mueller, a well-respected career judiciary. That isn’t a surprise; look at the way Republicans cut the legs out from under James Comey, who was also once respected by the GOP — not to mention just months removed from Democrats being convinced he was trying to throw the election in Trump’s favor — before he was toppled over this same Russian debacle.

Meanwhile, Republican operatives are attempting to poison public opinion by arguing that collusion isn’t a crime. That’s debatable, legal experts say. If a foreign government used money to influence a U.S. election, that can be a crime, and depending on the level of collusion, there may also be anti-coercion or public corruption law violations facing Team Trump.

Clearly, Trump operatives are guilty of colluding with Russian operatives, whether or not it was a crime. And, clearly, Trump believes there is substance here — how else do you explain the newest reports that he’s looking at his options to pardon . . . including himself?

But whether or not a crime was committed should be secondary. It should be a cause of great concern that an American president potentially conspired with Russians to influence a U.S. election.

I’ve heard the arguments that “anyone would have done it,” and to that I say not just no but hell no. This isn’t Great Britain or Canada we’re talking about here. Russia may not necessarily be defined as an American enemy at the present time, but Russia certainly doesn’t have America’s best interests at heart. Colluding with officials of a nation that would like nothing better than to see us fail, in an effort to undermine a U.S. election, may or may not be illegal but it reeks of traitorous intent. That should concern every one of us to the core. If an American president is willing to sell his soul to that devil to be elected, what else is he willing to do?

This isn’t about some deep-rooted desire to see Trump impeached. Only liberals who are rabid in their partisanship sit around hoping that the president will be impeached. This entire process is damaging to America. It is damaging to our reputation on the global scene, it threatens to eat at the fabric of our national economy and it stalls progress on issues that really matter, at a time when we have foreign enemies working actively towards a goal of attacking us on various fronts (and not just militarily).

But that shouldn’t stop America’s quest for the truth…just as it didn’t stop our quest for the truth during Watergate.

To throw in a basketball reference here, it wasn’t the crime of having players to his house for a barbecue that toppled former University of Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl. It was the lies that followed. And it wasn’t the crime of breaking into a campaign office that toppled Nixon. It was the lies that followed.

Right now, Team Trump is lying at every turn, and those lies are being exposed. The lies of Sessions, Trump Jr. and others have eroded a rabbit hole, and someone — in this case, Mueller — must dive down that hole to see what waits on the other side.

And if what waits on the other side is damning enough to destroy the Trump presidency, so be it. One man is not America . . . never has been, and certainly shouldn’t start now.

So tell Roger Simon to stop beating the war drums and calling for a civil war if Trump is indicted, tell the GOP base to stop attacking reporters who are merely trying to do their job, and let’s see this thing through. The truth will either condemn Trump or set him free. Either way, it’s all America should be interested in.

By | July 23rd, 2017|0 Comments

It’s been a cool month

If you hate hot weather, you’re going to scoff at what I’m about to say.

July has been a bit on the cool side.

I know, right?

It has been, though. Relative to normal, July has been a touch cool. Our average high temperature in Oneida has been 84.4 degrees. In a normal July, the average high temperature is 85.5 degrees. Our overall average temperature is running about the same: 73.5 is this month’s average; 74.7 is the normal July average.

These averages are based on a 30-year period from 1981 to 2010.

It has been hot lately, of course. Our overall temperature has been skewed by the first week or so of the month, which was rainy and cool. We hit 90 degrees on Friday, marking just the second time that’s occurred in Oneida this summer (the first time since June 14). And we were 88 on both Wednesday and Thursday. That makes three consecutive days of above-average temperatures.

It has still been quite a cool summer, this current heat wave not withstanding. We’ve hit 90 degrees just twice this year, and last year we hit 90 on eight different days in the month of July alone. Throw in eight days in June, seven in August and eight in September, and we hit 90 degrees 31 days last year. Given the current look of the long-range models, I’m almost certain we won’t even hit double digits this year, and we could very well wind up with fewer than five days of 90-degree temps this year.

By | July 22nd, 2017|0 Comments

Cool and rainy again

WEATHER: A return to cooler, wetter conditions across the Cumberland Plateau.

By | July 21st, 2017|0 Comments