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RV park looks to get back on track

Grading of the 17-acre field that will eventually be the site of an RV park and campground next to the Museum of Appalachia has left just plain red dirt, pending ap- proval of final plans and construction of park builldings and amenities. The park, which was supposed to open this past May, now won’t be ready until next summer, developers say. (photo:G. Chambers Williams III )
Already two months past its originally planned opening date, the campground/recreational-vehicle park planned for property adjoining the Museum of Appalachia still is just smoothly graded dirt after nearly a year of work.

But the Sevierville-based developers said last week that they are still working on the project, and hope to go back before the Norris Planning Commission on Aug. 1 to present plans for some of the buildings for the park.

And even though there have been no permits issued yet except for the grading work, the plan is to have the park – which will be called Appalachia Ridge – open for business early next summer, said Mandy Conner, one of the owners of the planned development.

“Everybody is excited,” she said. “We’re working with the city executives to get on the Planning Commission agenda for Aug. 1.”

Norris officials said the RV park’s developers were on the agenda for the July 5 Planning Commission meeting to present plans for the washhouse and check-in building for the facility, but that no one from Appalachia Ridge showed up for the meeting.

Conner said afterward that she and her partners did not know they were on the agenda for that meeting, and had intended to present their building plans at the August meeting.

Grading on the 17.5-acre site just to the west rear of the Museum of Appalachia on Andersonville Highway in Norris began last summer, and seems to have been at a standstill for several months, with a large expanse of bare, red dirt visible as visitors enter the museum property.

That has led some people who live in the area to question whether the project had been abandoned, especially considering that the developers said during the groundbreaking in early September 2021 that they expected to have the park open by May 2022.

But the project is still “very much alive,” Conner said last week.

“We have not stopped working on it,” she said. “It seems like we haven’t been working on it, but we have. We got the grading permit, and the grading process did take longer than our projected timeline. We were working with local utilities to access water, sewer and electrical service.

“Our next step is to be on the Aug. 1 agenda at the city meeting, hopefully to get city approval on the final site plan. The site plan will show the layout of the property as well as the utility connections. We have to obtain the final site plan in August,” Conner said.

“First we have to get the site plan approved, then we will request the appropriate building permits. We have talked to some of the committee members. We have tried to keep the ball rolling.”

Conner said besides delays in the grading work, the death of museum founder John Rice Irwin earlier this year caused a delay in getting one of the land leases approved. Irwin was the listed owner of one of the two tracts the RV park is being built on.

“So, there was a delay in the land lease,” Conner said. “We’re definitely not pointing any fingers, though. We have our site plan finalized; engineering documents finalized. We just need to submit those for review and approval.

“Our goal is to be open by late spring or early summer of 2023. The weather has been a little bit of a factor, too.”

The owners are Mandy Conner and her husband, Jimbo Conner, along with Mike Hale and his wife, Jessica Hale. The four are already partners in The Ridge Outdoor Resort in Sevierville, after which the Norris campground will be patterned.

Mandy Conner said after last September’s groundbreaking that the group chose the name Appalachia Ridge to signify its connection to the adjacent Museum of Appalachia and the existing RV park they own in Sevierville.

Initial plans for the park were approved in August 2021 by the city of Norris, after the land was rezoned in May to allow the facility on property next to the museum, owned by the founding family of the museum.

“We’re excited to see the project get underway,” said Lindsey Gallaher, who is serving as the Irwin family’s spokesperson for the RV park. She is the granddaughter of the late museum founder John Rice Irwin, and daughter of Elaine Irwin Meyer, the museum’s president.

“We were approached by a friend of ours in Sevierville who is on the board of the museum about creating a campground there,” Mandy Conner said last summer. “My husband has been in the campground business since 1992. We went up a little over a year ago and looked at the property, and we fell in love with the museum and the family. We started the process of leasing the land.

“Our goal is to really enhance the museum in Norris,” she said. “And we want to offer a really good camping experience to people traveling in the area. We believe it’s such a beautiful setting.”

Not exactly a traditional RV park, Appalachia Ridge plans to feature luxury “glamping” tents, treehouses and tiny homes for rent by the night, along with 100 campsites.

“We’re planning on four glamping tents, three tiny homes, and three treehouses,” said Joy Maples of Conner Marketing, who is handling public relations for the RV park owners.

Appalachia Ridge would bring the first overnight accommodations to the museum area, along Andersonville Highway in the Bethel community on land that was annexed by Norris about 10 years ago.

The Norris City Council in May 2021 approved rezoning the land for the park/campground from S-2 (Scenic Highway District) to general commercial (C-2), over objections of the city’s planning and zoning board, which had initially denied the request.

That rezoning covers the address 2819 Andersonville Highway, which includes two tracts comprising about 17.5 acres adjacent to the museum.

The rezoned area sits between the museum and Scruggs Cemetery Lane, behind a stone wall, on land the museum has used for overflow parking during special events. It sits back from Andersonville Highway, and would be accessible only through the museum’s entrance road.

The two pieces of property are Tract 132 on the Anderson County property map, a total of four acres, with Elaine Meyer listed as the owner; and Tract 13, part of which would provide the rest of the 17.5 acres for the RV park. But not all of that tract would be used for the park. Owners of Tract 13 were listed on county records as “John Rice Irwin and others.”

The City Council overruled the Planning Commission during the April 2021 meeting and voted for the rezoning ordinance on first reading, with every council member speaking in favor of the move.

They noted that the land along Andersonville Highway where the museum is located was zoned commercial before the city of Norris annexed it several years ago, and they said it was common knowledge that the city annexed that area in anticipation of commercial development.