HUNTSVILLE — Steve Howard considers himself a man of his word. So his message to Scott County Commission is clear: "If they think I'm not going to do what I say, they're in for a surprise."
Howard doesn't mince words. The days for mincing words, he says, are over. If those days didn't pass in May 2016, when County Commission rejected a petition to close Litton Covered Bridge Road, they've passed at some point since, as the battle of the deteriorated road has played out before the commission and the courts.
"At this point, I don't care what they think of me," Howard says of County Commission. "I'm over it."
The final straw may have been when he had words with a commissioner at a hardware store last month. Or it might have been when another commissioner visited the property he owns with his wife, Marla, and told the Howards it was wrong of them to deny the public access to their property. It might have even been when an anonymous caller to a local television talk show — R.L. Gibson's "Scott County Issues" — called for the Howards to be arrested.
Chances are, though, that the final straw came on May 16, 2016 — the day County Commission rejected his plea to close the old road. Howard vowed that night he would never step before the commission again. Fourteen months later, he still hasn't.
But that doesn't mean the fight is over. Not by a long shot.
A contentious debate
The subject of Litton Covered Bridge Road was quiet for much of the summer of 2016 and the winter that followed, after County Commission voted in May 2016 to reject a petition by the Howards and fellow landowner Daniel Posey to permanently close the road through their property that borders New River and Paint Rock Creek. But by the time commissioners met in work session earlier this month, the heated topic was back to a boiling point.
It was at that meeting on July 3 that 4th District County Commissioner Rick Russ — one of three commissioners who have opposed the idea of closing the road from the beginning — called Road Superintendent Dick Sexton to the mat over Sexton's refusal to reopen the road, which has ostensibly been closed for repairs.
"I'm asking you professionally now, please open the road up," Russ told Sexton, implying that Sexton was ignoring commissioners' directive to keep the road open.
Sexton declined, saying the road would remain closed until the road department obtained sufficient funds to repair it or unless the county agreed to accept responsibility for the deteriorated roadway.
To this point, neither has happened.
Three weeks later, with County Commission and the road department apparently at an impasse, the locked gate remains in place where J.R. Hembree's property ends and the Howards' begins, between Huntsville and Paint Rock Creek. Sexton has not ruled out reopening the road — "I'm not saying I won't open the road," he said at the meeting earlier this month — but simply opening the gate isn't going to end the battle, either.
Litton Covered Bridge Road may be rutted and fit for only four-wheel-drive vehicles these days, but it wasn't always that way. It was once a major thoroughfare between Huntsville and Winona — the only way to get from Scott County's governmental seat to Campbell County's governmental seat in Jacksboro.
In those days, before State Highway 63 and Interstate 75 were built, Litton Covered Bridge Road was known as the Huntsville to Jacksboro Road. Some property deeds along the roadway still refer to it that way. Exactly when it became a public road is unclear; the Howards' deed refers to it as a wagon road. But it is known when it ceased to be a thoroughfare: its namesake over Paint Rock Creek was burned twice in the 1970s and was not rebuilt after the second time. In 1980, the county court — a forerunner to County Commission — deemed the road closed on the eastern side of the creek; the road easement from the creek to Railey Lane near Winona Road reverted to private property.
Ironically, one of those on hand when Litton Covered Bridge was being rebuilt in the 1970s was a young kid named Steve Howard. His father, local builder Ray Howard, was supervising the crew tasked with building back the bridge, and Howard tagged along with his father to the job site.
Howard never envisioned that he would one day own the property on either side of the bridge, much less be involved in a contentious debate over the road leading to it. But these days, he is himself a bridge-builder. The bridges he builds are much larger; his company, Twin K Construction, contracts with the Tennessee Department of Transportation to build concrete behemoths that make Litton Covered Bridge pale in comparison. But he says he will one day rebuild the old bridge across Paint Rock Creek. And it will be a covered bridge — just like the old days.
Part of Howard's inspiration is nostalgia. Another part of it is simply a desire to build things. "I'm a bridge-builder," he says. "It's what I do."
His wife has grander plans. Marla Howard envisions a place where couples can hold rustic wedding ceremonies. The covered bridge would be a perfect backdrop for photos, and it has always been a romantic destination of sorts; the Howards recall a story by Huntsville alderman Jim Morrow, who proposed to his wife, Angela, on the bridge.
Howard isn't so certain about his wife's plans for the property, and he says so. But one thing they're both sure of: everything is on hold until the legal battle over the old road that bisects their property is behind them.
If Steve Howard is steadfast in his will to fight Scott County over control of the old Litton Covered Bridge Road, his wife may be even moreso.
"I'm mad," Marla Howard admits.
It isn't hard to sense that anger when she speaks. She is vexed that County Commission rejected their bid to have the old road closed. After all, she says, it hasn't been touched by a county road maintenance crew in decades and serves no useful purpose. Even if motorists can drive on the road, they can't get out of their vehicle. To do so would be to trespass on the Howards' property. They own either side of the roadway, which by definition is a maximum of 15 feet in width. They don't own the waters of New River, which by state law is considered a navigable waterway and therefore belongs to the state. But they do own the waters of Paint Rock Creek. And they own the shoreline along New River.
The Howards admit that they expected County Commission to side with them in their bid to close the road. Initially, it appeared that might happen. Commissioners gave an initial okay to close the road by a 10-3 vote. Only Russ, 3rd District Commissioner Sheila Buttram and 5th District Commissioner Trent Cross voted against it.
But after an angry audience packed the Scott County Office Building's conference room at a public hearing a month later, the vote was reversed, and commissioners voted 10-3 to keep the road open. Only 1st District Commissioner Blue Day, 3rd District Commissioner Ernest Philllips and 5th District Commissioner Robyn McBroom voted to close it.
The members of the public who showed up to state their case won over a majority of the commissioners with their pleas to keep the road open.
"What gets me is they think 10 or 20 people who ring their phone off the hook are representative of what the majority want," Marla Howard says. "And even if they were, right is right and wrong is wrong."
The Howards understand the nature of the fight: those who agree that closing the road is the right move for Scott County aren't the ones who are apt to show up and state their opinion in a public forum. Those who oppose the road's closure are passionate about the issue, and are always going to show up.
Those who fall into the latter group are driven mostly by nostalgia. One by one, they stood up at last spring's public hearing to talk about how they've used Litton Covered Bridge Road to visit the river and the falls of Paint Rock Creek over the years. Among them were a lawyer, a doctor and plenty of just ordinary, everyday people.
One of those is Jennifer Allen. She lives on Litton Covered Bridge Road — before the proposed point of closure — just like generations of her family before her.
"This is a hot subject for the people that live on this road," Allen says. "My great-grandparents have had access to this road for many years that we have lived here and why should we be punished for stuff that others have done?
"I'm tired of fighting for it but the elders that live here aren't and they say they are gonna fight until the end," she adds.
That is the nature of the battle. It has pitted neighbor against neighbor. Even the two 3rd District commissioners who represent the Howards are split on the issue. Buttram, who recently visited the property and talked with the Howards, has steadfastly opposed closing the road, while Phillips is one of only three commissioners to consistently vote to close it.
One of the commissioners who was swayed by the arguments against closing the road is the 2nd District's June Jeffers. She accompanied Buttram and road superintendent Sexton to visit the Howards on a recent trip to the property and says she is not ready to change her mind.
"How long has that road been there?" she asks. "It's been there longer than me or you either one. It needs to stay open."
To a point, the Howards say they understand the argument against closing the road. Steve Howard admits he used to visit the property in his youth, as well. "I never gave a thought to who owned it," he says.
But that was then and this is now. Now the Howards own the property. They say their interest is in protecting their investment.
"You can't let the public have free reign over your property. You just can't," Howard says. "It's not like it was a hundred years ago."
Not that the Howards are the first property owners to fight the battle against trespassers on Litton Covered Bridge Road. Posey, whose property they are in the process of acquiring, had a gun pulled on him by trespassers 20 years ago.
The Howards are different in that they were thrust into the spotlight by their request to have the road closed — and by their refusal to take no for an answer. But even on that point they may not be alone. Another property owner along the road — J.R. Hembree — has let the office of County Mayor Dale Perdue know that he wants the road closed at his property line, which begins shortly after the road's intersection with Natural Bridge Road. That just happens to be the point at which routine maintenance of the road ends.
Hembree's request hasn't been formally taken up by County Commission, and its resolution will likely depend on the Howards' battle to close the road further down.
A picturesque scene
The Howards are putting the finishing touches on a small cabin that overlooks the falls of Paint Rock Creek. They rely on natural gas for cooking, heating and lights. What little electricity they need is supplied by a gas-powered generator. Water comes from the creek.
They spend much of their time here these days. They're afraid not to, they say. "It wouldn't last a week before somebody burned it to the ground," Marla Howard says. She adds that a county commissioner has agreed with her that vandals would likely burn it. That's one of the few things the Howards and many of the commissioners are agreeing on these days.
Steve Howard points out that another cabin, built on the Hembree property back up the road towards town, likewise did not last long before arsonists destroyed it.
Standing outside the cabin, it isn't hard to see what motivated the Howards to build a second home here. There are no unnatural noises. Years ago, the booming sound of locomotives would have been heard on the Tennessee Railroad from Oneida to Devonian. The tracks are just out of sight of the cabin. These days, the only sound to be heard is that of the water dropping over the falls as it flows towards New River.
As Howard talks about his plight to protect his property from trespassers and vandals, Bert — the Howards' retriever — demands his owner's attention with a sharp bark. Howard tosses a tennis ball into the calm pool of water below the falls. Bert retrieves it, then drops it at Howard's feet with another bark, anxious for an excuse to traipse back into the water.
Like the dog, the Howards' grandchildren love the area around the falls. The family also spends considerable time camping at what they call "the river spot," where the creek empties into the river. It, too, is a picturesque scene, and the site where the Howards will soon break ground on a second cabin.
If anyone understands the allure of this place, it is the Howards. To that end, they say they have not refused anyone access to their property.
"When we first started, we were going to let people come in and sign a waiver and camp and use the property, but they (County Commission) didn't want that," Marla Howard says.
Still, the Howards say they generally allow use of their property to those who ask. There is a young man who calls like clockwork each week to ask permission to hike in and fish. Permission is always granted. Others have camped at the river spot. The Howards say their goal is simply to maintain control.
"We make everyone who uses the property other than immediate family sign a waiver," Steve Howard says. "If they open that gate, I lose control over who uses the property."
A massive cleanup
Once heavily trafficked, the areas around the mouth of Paint Rock Creek and the falls weren't always so picturesque. As part of his plea to close the road last spring, Howard distributed pictures at County Commission meetings. The photos showed how years of heavy usage had taken a toll.
In fact, the chief reason why the county closed Litton Covered Bridge Road on the east side of the creek back in 1980 was to stop illegal dumping, according to Posey. The steep embankment on the south side of the old road was a target for people looking for somewhere to dump their household garbage. Thirty-seven years later, piles of trash can still be seen up and down the ravine that parallels the old roadbed.
No one is sure why the portion of the road on the west side of the creek was not closed at the same time. But the Howards say the issue is the same. As numerous people used the property over the years, trash accumulated. Partying and drug usage were once rampant. Empty beer cartons were left hanging in the trees. Broken bottles were all around. Dirty needles were everywhere.
In the months that he and his family spent cleaning up their property over the past year, Howard says he picked up a five-gallon bucket of hypodermic needles from just the area around his new cabin. He tells a story of a visitor to the property finding an overdose victim in a pickup truck, passed out with a needle still dangling from his arm after shooting up drugs. "He thought the man was dead," Howard said.
The needles were just the start. The Howards say they also cleaned up five dump truck loads of trash from the creek and the banks on either side. Dozens of old tires were hauled away from the river junction. And even now, pieces of broken glass seep from the ground after a heavy rain, pulled to the top of the soil as if they're growing.
Marla Howard points to the area around a sandbox her grandkids play in next to the falls. Shards of broken glass are round about. "The grandkids always pick up glass when they visit," she says. "That's their job. They call it treasure hunting."
If Litton Covered Bridge Road is reopened, Steve Howard says, the control they've fought to gain over the property will be lost. To that end, he poses a question: how is this property different from anyone else's?
"There is no difference between people coming down here and doing their drugs and partying or going into anybody's front yard and doing the same thing," he says. "How would you like them on your property doing that?"
A price to pay
Just days after County Commission declined to close Litton Covered Bridge Road last spring, the road department barricaded it, saying the closure was temporary so that repairs could be made. Sexton said at the time that a motorist had busted an oil pan on the road, prompting the closure.
Sexton eventually relented and removed the barricades. The Howards then blocked it themselves, first by trenching it and later by erecting a gate at the entrance to their property. They also filed a lawsuit, seeking the court's intervention to close the road due to the county's years of neglect.
The Howards lost that legal battle when 8th Judicial District Chancellor Elizabeth Asbury ruled in March 2017 that Litton Covered Bridge Road is a public road and, since there is no law in Tennessee regarding abandonment, the Howards have no legal right to barricade it. She ordered that they surrender control of the gate to the road department.
John Beaty, the county's attorney who successfully argued the county's case before Asbury, told commissioners in June that the road is ready to be reopened whenever Sexton deems it safe to be traveled. To date, that hasn't happened, leading to the rift between Russ and Sexton that surfaced at the meeting earlier this month.
The Howards can't force Scott County to close the road; that issue was settled with Asbury's ruling and the Howards' subsequent decision to not challenge the outcome on appeal. But they can ask that the road be brought up to standard as a county road, and they made it clear at the May 2016 meeting of County Commission that they will ask the road department to do just that.
When commissioners last voted on the issue at the May 2016 meeting, Sexton — who had lobbied commissioners to approve the Howards' request — asked for the county to provide funding to repair the road. When the subject arose again at this month's meeting, Sexton again broached the subject, saying the court wanted the road left open but had not appropriated any funding for it.
Sexton's estimates for the road's repair are close to $75,000. His department relies solely on its share of the state's gasoline tax — about $2 million per year — for operational funding. Sexton said diverting money from his budget to pay for Litton Covered Bridge Road would require roads in more populated residential areas to go without needed repairs. The only alternative is for the county to supplement the road department's budget with tax revenue.
The Howards are hedging their bets on the idea that many Scott Countians will be upset if tax money is spent to fix a road that essentially goes nowhere. After all, they say, County Commission's Budget Committee has already recommended a 12-cent property tax increase for the new fiscal year, and $75,000 would be the equivalent of 2.5 cents on the tax rate. The Howards also point out that the road benefits only them.
"Basically, they would be building me a driveway," Steve Howard says.
Some commissioners have balked at the idea of repairing the road, saying it should be reopened as is. The Howards say they are prepared to contest such a move with another lawsuit.
"They think they're going to open it up just like it is now and allow ATV traffic," Howard says. But, he adds, "If they open the gate and that road isn't fixed, I'll do it (file a lawsuit) again. I absolutely won't back down."
The Howards have obtained two E-911 addresses — one for the cabin they have already built at the falls of Paint Rock Creek and another for the cabin they're planning to build at the river junction. That further muddies the water by creating an obligation for Scott County to maintain a road that can be accessed by emergency vehicles like ambulances and fire trucks.
In one aspect, the Howards say, they would be better off if the county were responsible for the road's upkeep. The $75,000 estimate to fix the road is a one-time cost. A significant portion of the road lies within New River's flood plain, and it is often covered when the river is out of banks after a heavy rain. On the other hand, the Howards say, they would much rather give up county road maintenance in exchange for the ability to control their property by having the road removed from the county's road list.
While the county won its first battle over Litton Covered Bridge Road, an attorney who spoke to the Independent Herald on condition of anonymity — not wishing to be seen as choosing sides in the debate — say the Howards will have a much stronger case if they file a lawsuit to force the county to repair the road.
The verdict of the court of public opinion in such a hypothetical scenario is yet to be read, but early returns seem to find few people in favor of spending money to repair the old road.
"My thing is, we don't have the money in the road department to fix the actual roads that are traveled every day," says Tara Brewster, an Oneida business manger. "Why spend money we don't have to fix a road going nowhere?"
Robbins resident Helen Myers says she grew up going to the river and the falls. But, she says, "If they are not going to build a bridge to get you over to the other side then they need to worry about some of these other roads that are in dire need of being fixed that people have to travel daily to get to work, like Coal Hill and River Road."
The battle rages on
While it has not been discussed in a public meeting, at least two commissioners have openly floated the idea that the county could file imminent domain to reclaim the property needed to rebuild a bridge across Paint Rock Creek, as well as the original road easement on the eastern side of the creek, a stretch of almost two miles to Railey Lane.
Steve Howard is doubtful that will happen.
"They can claim it, but they still have to buy it," he says. "Then there's another $70,000 to fix the road on that side of the creek. How do they come up with that money?"
And if the county decides to keep the road open? Howard says he's prepared to erect a fence on either side of it to prevent trespassing on his property. At that point, he says, Litton Covered Bridge Road would become not only a two-mile road to nowhere but a road that leaves no place for motorists to turn around, forcing them to back out the same way they came in.
"That makes me sound like a bad guy, and I hate to be that way, but what choice do I have?" he asks.
The Howards say they remain hopeful that commissioners will have a change of heart on the issue.
"I think a couple of them have changed their minds," Steve Howard says. "And a couple more of them didn't think the issue could be brought up for a vote again, but they can vote at any time to take the road off the county road list. All it takes is a motion and a second."
Were that to happen, it might not come as a complete surprise. One commissioner who spoke off the record to the Independent Herald after the last vote on the issue indicated that the decision was not yet final, saying, "They might yet get their road closed."
Marla Howard says she and her family didn't ask for the controversy that has enveloped the issue, and don't want it.
"We just want this to be over," she says. "We just want to be left alone."
But if the road is reopened without sufficient repairs being made to make it suitable for a two-wheel-drive vehicle, her husband says they are prepared to continue the fight.
"If they think I'm gonna give up and they can reopen the road and I'm gonna give in, they're wrong," he says. "I'll fight that fight until the day I die. Then my son and daughter will fight that fight. And after that my grandchildren will fight that fight. It's not going away."