Commissioner suggests land swap in light of concerns about Keefauver Farm

David Floyd • Nov 2, 2019 at 11:00 PM

Following concerns from family members that Johnson City won’t turn the historic Keefauver Farm into a park, a city commissioner has come up with a plan he hopes would ensure the property continues to be reserved for recreational use.

Commissioner John Hunter has informally suggested a land swap with Washington County, an idea he said Thursday that he hasn’t officially proposed to his fellow commissioners or assessed with the city manager.

The plan would involve trading the roughly 50-acre Keefauver Farm, which the city bought in 2009, for a roughly 10-acre plot of land that is home to the vacant Boones Creek Middle School, located at 4352 N. Roan St. Although state property information lists the owner of the site as “Boones Creek School,” most schools in the Washington County School System are owned by the county and the Board of Education.

For the sake of city growth and the protection of an important community asset, Hunter said the purchase of the Keefauver Farm was a good idea at the time.

“At this point I don’t know that the city owning county property is beneficial to city taxpayers,” he said.

Johnson City is trying to transfer federal restrictions, which require the property be used for recreational purposes, from the Keefauver Farm to a 37-acre property the city bought in 2018 along the Bristol Highway, giving the city greater flexibility to determine a different use for the property.

Although it’s close to city limits, the Keefauver property is in the county; the school property on North Roan Street is in the city.

The ultimate use of the land would be up to the county, but Hunter said his goal would be that the historic farm is used for recreational purposes.

“I think there would be great benefit if the county looked at that as some sort of park,” Hunter said.

As he envisions it, Hunter said the end result may be less of a traditional park and more of a nature preserve or a site for agricultural education.

“I’d rather see it be preserved in some sort of green space for the community compared to some sort of housing development when there’s plenty of areas that are not county or city-owned properties that could be developed,” Hunter said.

Hunter said people have reached out recently with concerns that removing the federal protections would give a developer the leeway to buy the property and build a neighborhood. Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl said last week he’s heard of no plans to sell the property.

Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock said the city commission has not had any discussion about Hunter’s idea, and noted that it’s premature at this phase to toss around suggestions. Commissioners are still waiting on a recommendation from the Parks and Recreation board, which she noted just finished the public input session on the conversion.

Because the proposal is still hypothetical, Washington County Staff Attorney Allyson Wilkinson declined to comment on the feasibility of the idea.

A few decades ago, Johnson City accepted money from a federal program called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, part of which paid for upgrades to the now-defunct Optimist Park.

A condition for accepting the 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.

After some false starts and an approval process lasting roughly four-and-a-half years, the city managed to transfer those restrictions to the Keefauver Farm in 2017. But changes in annexation laws made the city question how easy it would be to absorb that land into city limits, which undermined the feasibility of turning the property into a park.

The city commission instructed staff to start the conversion process again about a year ago. The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board held a public hearing about the issue in October. All six commenters, including four daughters of the original landowners, were critical of the decision.

Asked for his opinion on Hunter’s idea, City Manager Pete Peterson said there’s still a lot of unanswered questions. For one, Washington County doesn’t operate a parks and recreation department.

Rebecca Alexander, a member of the Keefauver family, told the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board last week that her parents sold their land to Johnson City because the city intended to turn the farm into a park.

At the time the city bought the Keefauver Farm, Peterson said annexation laws were drastically different than they are today. Because of expectations about growth in that area and increases in enrollment in the city school system, Peterson said the city had considered using the site as an elementary school with a park surrounding it.

Restrictions in state annexation laws, however, have slowed city growth in that area, Peterson said.

“There are still people in that area that are asking for annexation and we’re growing out in that area, but that growth isn’t occurring as quickly as it once was,” he said.

Peterson said he doesn’t recall there being any requirements in the paperwork connected to the sale that the property be used for a park.

The city has not made a final decision about the use of that property.