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.
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.
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.