SOUTH PITTSBURG — Residents in Marion County's Jumpoff community are upset after the County Commission decided not to block a sand mine operation from being established there on 150 acres of farmland.
Commissioners have the right, granted by the legislature, to invoke special powers to to regulate certain land uses identified as nuisances, using what's called a County Powers Act.
The act was rejected during the commission's October meeting in a 9-4 vote, and some residents feel left behind.
"I guess money won this challenge, but we fought the best we could against it," Jumpoff resident Ron Bailey said in an email after the meeting. "We can only hope there is something environmental that will stop it or a conservation effort purchase of the land."
Jumpoff community resident Ronnie Hoosier doesn't really oppose a sand mine coming to Marion County, but when the proposed operation is just 50 feet from his home, he'd rather see it somewhere else.
The parcel is still listed for sale with real estate agencies, and a "for sale" sign stands at the driveway entrance, indicating the sale hasn't closed.
Proposed Jumpoff sand mine in Marion County draws opponents seeking county intervention
Looking out on the neighboring land from his quiet backyard in the community where he grew up, Hoosier mostly wishes Tullahoma-based Tinsley Sand and Gravel would just find another piece of property.
Hoosier said he's not sure the County Powers Act offers a solution, but in a county without zoning, it's one of the only ways for county leaders to address unwanted activities, he and others said.
"I've got nothing against Tinsley, I've got nothing against the people who work there, but keep it out away from residential areas and houses," he said. "But there are probably more people against the County Powers Act in Marion County than there are for it. Used right, the County Powers Act would be a good thing for the county. Without that, there's nothing to control it here or anywhere else in Marion County."
Bailey contends a sand mine in the Jumpoff community, not far from the college town of Sewanee, will drive down property values and offer nothing for the residents it could have as neighbors.
"Why would the Marion County mayor and some commissioners support a proposed sand quarry in Sewanee?" Bailey said. "What county leadership would allow a sand quarry to be allowed amongst residential homes and family farms? Marion County citizens, be fearful of your county's leadership because they might put a sand quarry next to your house or farm."
Bailey said a sand mine would change the face of the community for the worse.
"I can't recall many families with children asking a Realtor if they can find them a home next to a sand quarry," he said. "Elected officials should be looking out for their citizens and not be selling them out to industry. You should be protecting our health, way of life, well water and property values."
Act shot down
At Monday's commission meeting, Bailey and other residents addressed commissioners three minutes at a time expressing their worries about the effect of the proposed sand mine on local well water, property values, caves, dust and noise from blasting — the company estimates eight blasts per year — that could negatively affect combat war veterans living nearby.
Doug Cameron has lived on South Pittsburg Mountain for 75 years, 33 of those in the Jumpoff community, and he told commissioners the sand mine will overburden the community's limited emergency services with accidents caused by the interaction between regular vehicular traffic and sand trucks on state Highway 156.
"It's a narrow road — narrower than (U.S.) 41 out here — it doesn't have shoulders, so just a little inattention by a driver, they're off the road, they overcorrect, they spin around, they go out through the trees, and we have to cut them out of their car and hope they live," said Cameron, who also is assistant chief at the volunteer fire department in nearby Sewanee that serves part of the Jumpoff community. "You can imagine pulling over to escape a big truck coming down through there, and it's only going to make that worse."
Tinsley Sand representative Christopher Hopkins told the commission that concerns were being raised that don't exist in a properly run sand mine operation.
Highway 156, the primary travel artery from the proposed site on South Pittsburg Mountain, is a state road built to higher standards than the federal government requires, Hopkins said. The road is built for a maximum truck weight of 80,000 pounds while the heaviest truck to leave the proposed sand mine will weigh no more than 74,000 pounds, he said.
"That's 6,000 pounds under the limit," Hopkins said.
Hopkins defended the proposed mine's effect on its neighbors, saying the company -- if the mine moves forward -- will do "pre-opening inspections" of nearby homes at residents' request to provide a baseline of conditions before and after mine operations begin.
"So afterward, if anybody says we caused damage, we can go look at it, and if we did it, we'll fix it, simple as that," Hopkins said. "If a neighbor wants a seismograph planted in their lawn for one of our eight blasts a year, we will gladly do that."
Hopkins said a report on all blasts will be filed with the state fire marshal as required.
If the sand operation happens, Jack Champion, a neighbor and opponent of the proposed mine, suggested a per-ton percentage the company promised to the county that could total hundreds of thousands of dollars a year should go to a community center and new fire hall for the Jumpoff community.
Marion County Mayor David Jackson, an opponent of the County Powers Act, said his role in the debate was to provide the County Commission with the information it needed to make a decision, not to influence the commission's decision.
"It can be brought up again, but I think it's dead," Jackson said of the act's likely future. "People out in the county don't want to be told what to do with their property."
Jackson is concerned about how the act might be used in the future, he said, but he agreed with Jumpoff residents who called for directing Tinsley's per-ton funding to target the Jumpoff community with a community center and/or a fire hall.
Tinsley is the same company in the midst of a court battle in neighboring Grundy County after beginning sand mine operations in 2022 at a 138-acre site at 348 Chevy Road, drawing fire from nearby residents and county leaders who decided to use the County Powers Act to regulate the company's operation, according to the county mayor. Tinsley challenged the act with a lawsuit.
The county was initially favored in a September 2022 Chancery Court ruling, but Tinsley appealed that decision, and the state Court of Appeals has not yet rendered a ruling, Grundy County Mayor Michael Brady said in a phone interview.
Brady was a county commissioner when the County Powers Act was passed in 2012, he said, and it has since led to four resolutions regulating adult stores, pain clinics, temporary encampments — such as those at events — and rock quarries/sand mines.
Tinsley's Grundy County site drew two complaints from its neighboring residents in 2022, one in March and another in August, according to state Department of Environment and Conservation records. The complaint filed March 18, 2022, indicated silt fences -- meant to retain storm runoff and mud — had fallen, allowing muddy water from the site to flow toward a stream during a rain event, but upon inspection during another rain event, state officials reported no problems with the silt fences but did find Tinsley's site was out of compliance related to information contained in reporting documents.
The complaint filed in August raised concerns about stormwater runoff polluting local streams that fall in the state's "exceptional waters" category for quality and cave systems in that part of the Cumberland Plateau, but state inspectors responded saying Tinsley's operations were distant enough it posed no problems.
"Discharges from this facility are regulated so that they are protective of fish and aquatic life at the discharge point, and the fact that these discharges are only a small portion of the total watershed entering the Wonder Cave and Crystal Cave systems provides an additional margin of safety," said a letter from Daniel Lawrence, program manager for the Department of Environment and Conservation.
Until a decision is handed down by the state appellate court, Brady said, Tinsley's options in Grundy County are halted.
The Department of Environment and Conservation has not received permit applications related to the South Pittsburg Mountain property — and there has been no sale yet — but Tinsley has other interests in Marion County, agency officials said.
Thirteen miles east, Tinsley is preparing to open another sand mine in Marion County that no one has opposed, according to state records. It's still in the permitting process, following a public comment period that ended in September. The permit is in Tinsley's name.
"The Dykes Hollow Road site is approximately 91 acres," agency spokesperson Kim Schofinski said in an email.
According to Tennessee property records, the 91-acre tract where Tinsley's permit is pending is part of an almost 2,000-acre parcel owned by Sequatchie LLC/Timberland Investment Resources LLC, of Charlotte, North Carolina.
State records show no complaints have been filed on the Dykes Hollow Road site, as of Friday. Tinsley's draft permit describes the operation consisting of "crushers, screens, conveyors and associated equipment," with an additional air contaminant permit for the construction of facilities.
Dubbed the Marion County Sand Plant in permitting paperwork, state officials conducted a "pre-mine inspection" of the undeveloped site, according to a state inspection report. The site is currently used as a pine farm, and no mining activity has begun. Records note there is a historically mined section where some existing features will be retained, and buffer zones were deemed adequate.
Tinsley also operates an additional mining facility on Greenhaw Road in Franklin County, Schofinski said.
"The most recent complaint we have received at this location was in 2012," she said. "There have been no violations documented at this location."