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There was a catch in his voice as Trent McCoy listed off the family members he’s laid to rest at Wattenbarger Cemetery off Cold Springs Rd. inside the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area.

“My daughter's buried down there," he told the environmental committee of the Cumberland County Commission. "My mom and dad's buried down there. 

"I shouldn't have to get a key or to get somebody's permission to go down there to see my little girl's grave. There's something wrong with that."

He was among several people sharing the names of loved ones recently and long passed buried at the site used for generations — a site they're having trouble accessing since a gate was installed on the road by Tennessee Wildlife Resoorce Agency.

"It's such a pleasant place. You go down there — and you still mourn sometimes," McCoy said. "You shouldn't have to worry about a gate being up."

The families have taken care of the cemetery grounds and installed a fence, using their own resources and labor.

“We all grew up down there," said Sherry McCoy Guinn.

She ticked off names of people buried at the cemetery: Hoovers, Frenches, Phippses, Wattenbargers, McCoys, Lowhorns.

Cumberland County Historian Barbara Parsons told the Chronicle some of the graves go back to the mid-1800s. She researched the Wattenbarger Cemetery in the 1980s for a compilation of cemetery records. The Wattenbarger family provided the land located off Cold Spring Rd. off Potato Farm Rd.

It's the third time the families have faced obstacles to accessing the burial site. Troy Sisco, whose father is buried there and who also plans to be buried there, said, "Here we are again."

There is another road to the cemetery, but it's out of the way and also not in good condition, the family said.

The state has improved the road in recent years, adding gravel and installing a gate. Mark Baldwin, 7th District commissioner, said the road had been improved to serve logging trucks who cannot use a bridge on another route. 

Baldwin has communicated with representatives of TWRA, and he invited them to attend the meeting. No one was present from the agency.

"They put the gate up, according to TWRA, to keep people from vandalizing the road that they spent so much repairing," Baldwin said. "They say there's other illegal activity in there, like poaching and people getting in there doing things they're not supposed to be doing, so they put up the gate to stop that.

"As many of you know, the gate has since been heavily damaged, if not destroyed. TWRA uses that as their argument."

TWRA has said the family can call for someone to unlock the gate if they need to visit the cemetery.

"Which is ridiculous," Baldwin said. "You shouldn't have to call for permission to go to the cemetery, especially by day."

County Attorney Philip Burnett said a 1911 Tennessee Supreme Court decision provides a legal precedent for ensuring heirs have access to family burial grounds. A family plot was established on a farm. Eventually, the family farm was broken up and sold. The heirs, however, still wanted to use the burial ground and maintain the graves.

The decision states the owner of any burial ground holds the title of that land in trust for the benefit of the heirs and descendants of the people buried there.

The decision also affirms the right of descendants to visit the property and to maintain the property.

"They have the right of ingress and egress from the public road nearest to the cemetery," Burnett read. The decision also says access is to be "reasonable."

"This is still good law," Burnett said. "I think the state of Tennessee is going to have a hard time overcoming this."

A resolution could be that the gate needs to be open during the day, at the least.

There are questions about if the road is a county or a public road — which are not the same thing, Burnett explained. Gates are not permitted across county roads.

A public road is a roadway used by the community for a period of time. 

"Beyond .5 miles, this is not a county road," Burnett said. 

The road was adopted as an undeveloped county road in 1996. Kyle Davis, 2nd District commissioner, said it wasn't included on the adopted list in 2004, but there was no further information about why it wasn't included.

Davis said there is a process for removing a county road from the road list, including a public hearing. There is no record that was conducted.

"What's the sense in us doing that if just leaving it off the road list takes it off the list?” Davis said. 

Burnett said he needed to research when the law establishing that process was passed by the Tennessee General Assembly. If it was in place at the time road was removed, it could still be a county road.

But Burnett said it could be difficult to claim the road as a county road, especially after the state invested funds in upgrading and maintaining the road. 

"I think that's a tougher fight for us," he said.

Troy Sisco said land records still record a right of way to the cemetery. 

Mike McCoy said he had contacted state leaders — who all say this is an issue the county should be able to resolve. 

"I don't know why they can't move the gate," he said. "I don't know where TWRA gets their authority.

"And if resolutions can just disappear, why would anything you do stand?"

Baldwin moved to seek a resolution with TWRA following the law on access to burial sites and to  reinstate Cold Springs Rd. to the county road list, supported by Deborah Holbrook, 8th District commissioner. The motion was unanimously approved. The resolution will go to the Aug. 17 Cumberland County Commission meeting. 

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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