By Kendal Groner

After seven or eight years of uncertainty about when it would become a reality, construction of the Erwin Linear Trail extension tunnel is about to begin.

On Wednesday, Feb, 28, the Town of Erwin Planning Commission heard an update about the project which will link the Erwin Linear Trail to Fishery Park.

In October of 2017, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen accepted a bid from Summers-Taylor Construction in the amount of $996,965.15 to construct the tunnel. Funds from the Tennessee Department of Transportation for a Transportation Alternatives grant in the amount of $885,271 will be used for the project, with the Town of Erwin providing a 20 percent match.

A precast of the concrete tunnel is being manufactured at Permatile Concrete Products Company in Bristol, Virginia, before it will be transported and put in place. The timeline for the entire project is from February to November, and will be open cut in the months of April and May.

“Summers Taylor is already on site doing marking and staking,” said Riki Forney, public works director for the Town of Erwin. “The open cut design has potential to shave months off of the project.”

During the four-week timeline from April 12 to May 16, Harris Hollow Road will be closed. Zane Whitson Drive and Old Fishery Road will be open to local traffic.

“They will have barricades there and they will have barricades closer to Main Avenue and 107,” Forney said.

Summers-Taylor is providing detour signs, and Forney added that local businesses from Governor’s Bend down to the area of Food Lion have been notified about the project and rerouting plans for delivery vehicles.

Forney said that Permatile is also building concrete blocks in two sections that will give a stacked stone look to fit in with the aesthetics of the area.

“It will look much nicer … it goes with the rural trail system we have in place,” he said. “Folks come from all over the region just because of our trail.”

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The Town of Erwin Board of Zoning and Appeals also met on Feb. 28. During that meeting, the board heard a variance request from Lindsey Harris, project manager for the Unicoi County Memorial Hospital property, for a buffer strip along the northern property boundary between the new hospital and a neighboring residential property.

“We want to block the view of the residents from the actual building,” Harris said. “Both properties are zoned B-2 commercial zoning, so as far as the ordinance stating a buffer has to be between a residential and commercial, that is not the case here.”

Harris mentioned a general agreement between Mountain States Health Alliance and the neighboring property owner that there would be some sort of buffer. The buffer would be 5 feet in width, and 6 feet tall after one growing season.

“As far as what kind of trees, we did not specify,” Harris added. “It will be conducive to the landscaping plan for the hospital.”

The buffer would be approximately 100 feet at the top angle of the northern boundary of the property, and 200 feet along the bottom angle.

“This is not precise, we are just going to go off of site distance,” Harris said.

Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley made a motion to approve the variance request. Erwin Board of Zoning Appeals member Clyde Edwards seconded the motion before it unanimously passed.

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The BZA also heard from Russ Davis, a planner with the First Tennessee Development District. Davis said that Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc. is looking to build a 150 foot high weather tower on site.

The issue in regulating the tower, is that the zoning code does not include language pertaining to any towers other than wireless towers.

“This tower is classified as a weather reception tower and data is not being transmitted wirelessly to a receiver,” Davis said. “It’s a gray area and we need the board’s interpretation of whether or not this is actually a wireless transmission tower.”

According to the regulations for a wireless transmission tower, there must be a clear zone of the height of the tower plus 25 feet. There was concern regarding the close proximity of the tower to a neighboring building and NFS employee cars.

“The fall zone of this – if it did fall – it is in close proximity of a parking lot and also a building,” said Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff. “One of the things we asked them is if it was self-collapsing, then they would have a different fall zone.”

If the board did not interpret the tower as a wireless tower, the safety regulations would become the responsibility of Brian Tapp, town building inspector. Tapp said that he had spoken with NFS, and expressed that his main concern was the fall zone and would suggest a self-collapsing tower. He added that if the board did not categorize the tower as a wireless tower, NFS might still need to come before the board for a variance request because of the proximity of the building and parking lot to the tower.

“(The ordinance) says data transmission, but it doesn’t say what kind,” said Hensley. “To me that would include data.”

Hensley expressed concern that if they did not regulate the tower, the town could still be held responsible in the event that it fell and caused damage.

Hensley made a motion to have the town attorney look into the matter. Her motion was seconded by Rosenoff before it unanimously passed.