Keefauvers concerned city decision would hurt chance of family land becoming park

David Floyd • Oct 25, 2019 at 10:00 PM

Members of the community and the Keefauver family are concerned that Johnson City won’t turn the historic Keefauver Farm, which encompasses roughly 52 acres in Gray, into a park.

“The agreement by our parents to sell the property to the city was because of the city’s intent to use the farm as a park,” Rebecca Alexander, a member of the Keefauver family, told the Johnson City Park Advisory Board on Thursday. She was joined at the meeting by her three sisters.

The city is hoping to transfer federal restrictions on the Keefauver Farm, which require that the city only use the property for outdoor recreation, to 37 acres the city purchased last year along Bristol Highway.

The advisory board held a public hearing during their meeting to gather input on the proposed conversion. The comments will be included in an application. Comments from all six speakers, including the four Keefauver sisters, were critical of the proposal.

“This side of the city needs a park,” Alexander said. “This is where all the future growth is taking place and people moving to Johnson City are looking for green space for their families. We are asking the city to honor its commitment to our parents to develop the Keefauver farm into a park that will benefit so many.”

Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl said the city accepted money a few decades ago from a federal program called the Land and Water Conservation Fund. A portion of that money paid for upgrades to Optimist Park in Johnson City.

A condition for accepting the federal money was that the city had to reserve Optimist Park for outdoor recreation, but after the construction of State of Franklin Road, Stahl said the city determined Optimist Park was no longer a suitable location for those requirements.

Stahl said the National Parks Service has a process by which recipients can transfer that federal requirement to another piece of land of equal or greater value.

In 2009, the city purchased the Keefauver Farm in Gray, which sits outside city limits, and “after some false starts,” Stahl said the city requested in 2013 that the federal government move the restrictions at Optimist to the Keefauver property.

Stahl said it took about four and a half years to get that federal designation moved from Optimist to Keefauver, but the National Parks Service officially approved the conversion in late 2017. But new state restrictions on annexation soon made the city question how easy it would be to turn that land into a park.

In a June 2018 letter to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which acted as the intermediary between the city and the National Parks Service, former Johnson City Mayor David Tomita said changes to Tennessee annexation laws had “significantly restricted” the city’s ability to expand its municipal boundaries.

“The Keefauver property is situated beyond the city limits of Johnson City and development into a city park is no longer necessary or feasible,” Tomita wrote. “A park property more centrally located within the existing city limits will be more utilized and cost effective.”

After buying roughly 37 acres close to Winged Deer Park in 2018, the City Commission asked the National Park Service to consider the new property as a replacement for Keefauver, which would transfer the designation for a second time. This would give the city more flexibility to find an alternate use for the Keefauver land.

“This conversion does not automatically assume that something happens to the Keefauver property,” Stahl said during the meeting on Thursday. “It means that if the conversion is approved, the property ... can still be developed into a park.”

He noted the conversion would mean, however, that the city could use the property for more than just outdoor recreation. Stahl said there have been no final decisions made on the property’s use.

Vicki Shell, the vice president of the Boones Creek Historic Trust, said her organization has been negotiating with the city for seven years to set up shop on the farm. She said the trust’s board of directors recently accepted a proposal from the city to move the trust’s museum to the farm’s house and its opry to the barn.

“We don’t want to be sandwiched with anything but a park out there,” she told the board. “It’s paramount to what we’re doing. What [the Keefauver sisters] described of what could go on out there, it’s a perfect marriage for what we want to do with our history and our stories and our opry and our cultural heritage in Boones Creek.”

Former Johnson City Mayor Pete Paduch, who also spoke against the conversion during the public hearing on Thursday, said the city should develop a seven-person committee, which would include a city commissioner, a county commissioner, a Jonesborough appointee and a member of the Keefauver family, to come up with plans for the property.

He believes the city should honor its agreement with the Keefauvers and has not done enough to involve members of the family and community in this process.