Ruins of an old residential neighborhood along Old Wauhatchie Pike. (Photo: Contributed)

Thoughts of a conservation land trust’s work may bring to mind visions of wildlife-inhabited forests, scenic mountains and remote streams. What you probably don’t picture are purchasing meth-contaminated homes; clearing land of kudzu, trash and billboard signs; or attempting to rejuvenate a long-declining neighborhood.

But this describes what turns out to not be the first time that Robyn Carlton and the Lookout Mountain Conservancy board have worked outside the normal expectations of a land conservancy.

On the northern flanks of Lookout Mountain, across the Tennessee River from Moccasin Bend, Old Wauhatchie Pike began as an early Cherokee Indian path and wagon trail along the bluffs overlooking the river. It became the primary road into the Chattanooga valley from the west. After being widened by Union soldiers between 1864 and 1865, it remained in use as a major road until Cummings Highway was constructed around 1918.

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The neighborhood that grew up around the roadway during the early and mid-1900s contained a mixture of large and small homes, and was the residence of some of Chattanooga’s most prominent citizens. But more than a decade ago, Wauhatchie Pike was blocked to through traffic and became a dead-end road, with the neighborhood being largely forgotten and sections deteriorating.

As the extension of the Tennessee Riverwalk to St. Elmo was being planned, the Lookout Mountain Conservancy began acquiring property in the Wauhatchie Pike neighborhood to make possible a connection from the Riverwalk to the popular Guild and Hardy trails, located on the side of the mountain. Property acquisitions included homes that had fallen into disrepair, a meth-contaminated site, three billboards (which have since been removed) and the remains of a burned mobile home.

After six years of work and more property being acquired along Old Wauhatchie Pike, added to the previous acquisition of the “adult motel” and waterslide property (now John Wilson Park), the conservancy had acquired more than enough land for a trail. In developing the strategic plan for building a connector trail and revitalizing the old neighborhood, the LMC board committed to preserving the land needed for the trail, the green swath along Cummings Highway, the areas of significant Civil War conflict and the land surrounding the upper end of the road, now listed with the National Register of Historic Places, as well as protecting the green vistas seen from downtown.

The conservancy also committed to making the property more accessible to casual walkers, serious hikers and cyclists connecting to the Lookout Mountain trails; climbers seeking to go bouldering in the developed climbing areas; and gardeners learning in a new neighborhood teaching garden.

In a novel approach, intended to resurrect residential vitality in this historical neighborhood, the LMC is seeking developers to help turn excess land not needed for the trail system or green space into a strengthened residential community.

This would allow the conservancy to pay off debt from the acquisitions and provide stability, safety and activity in the area. The concept allows the construction of small homes close to Old Wauhatchie Pike in some of the old homesite locations in hopes of creating a diverse neighborhood of new homeowners along with existing homeowners who have taken pride in their homes for generations.

The development must comply with a master plan and be subject to restrictions that are consistent with conservation, preserving some of the large trees, minimizing excavation, and limiting height and structure footprints.

The LMC is applying to the city of Chattanooga to annex properties it currently owns, then to propose a new “planned unit development” that will allow it to work with a developer to build as many as 24 homes in the first phase.

If approved, the development area will be about 3.5 acres, while the protected area will be over 40 acres.

The Lookout Mountain Conservancy board thinks that although this has been much more difficult than a typical land trust project, the combination of green space, residential neighborhood and recreational amenities will help protect and stabilize this neighborhood and the conserved park area for generations to come.

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