The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Updated: Land-use debate in New Market highlights painful choices facing farmers and the public

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IMG 6003Katie Fleenor of Mattalyn Rogers Dressage rides training horse Asa at Dressage by the River 2023 at River Glen.  Courtesy Mattalyn Rogers Dressage

Nonprofit’s plan to purchase equestrian property faced opposition but raised important future farmland issues

UPDATE: The Jefferson County Regional Planning Commission rejected the proposal for a KARM facility citing zoning restrictions. Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries may still bring the proposal to the Jefferson County Board of Zoning Appeals.

NEW MARKET — Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries plans to purchase River Glen, a storied equestrian facility in Jefferson County, to eventually help disadvantaged clients overcome substance-abuse issues and societal disparities.

The proposal has detractors, but proponents cast it as a way to also ensure the continued operation of an established working horse farm and long-term site of equestrian events, especially dressage. The horses could even provide therapy.

The New Market debate also raises questions about aging U.S. farmers and ultimate disposition of their agricultural lands.

President and Chief Executive Officer of KARM Danita McCartney said her group plans to purchase 185 acres. In addition to its show-worthy horse facilities, the property borders the Holston River and retains a significant amount of forest along the river and sharp ridge lines.

The property’s owner, Bill Graves, spoke highly of the potential new owners and said he was selling the land largely because he wanted to retire from running the business.

The Jefferson County Planning Commission planned to discuss the nonprofit’s plan for the site at a meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 23 at the Courthouse at 202 W. Main St. in Dandridge.

“I’m 74 years old. My kids don’t want to take the business over,” Graves told Hellbender Press. “I can’t do it anymore. I’m too old. I don’t have the juice to keep doing it.”

Local television stations have shared neighbors’ concerns about the possible KARM facility, its effects on property values and the kind of people it might attract.

“The county doesn’t agree with me, and the neighbors don’t agree with me, but I think the county and the neighbors won the lottery,” Graves said, explaining that KARM’s plan would be better than a developer selling it as 140 residential lots, which he thought might happen if KARM hadn’t been interested.

He said neighbors opposed his establishment of River Glen in the first place.

“Now they think River Glen is the jewel in the crown, but that’s not what they thought at the time,” he said. “The community doesn’t want you here until you gain their respect, and then they’ll support you,” he said.

He was also enthusiastic about KARM’s work and its benefits for New Market

“The community needs to change. We have an epidemic of addiction in this community,” he said. He also said KARM plans to continue hosting the equestrian events for which the site is currently known.

He said he had considered giving it to a land conservancy and had talked to several but felt like that solution might take too long.

“It takes a long, long time to get those kinds of things lined up,” he said. “I’m very sympathetic with a conservancy solution here, but I don’t know if it’s realistic or not.” 

Bill Clabough, executive director of the Foothills Land Conservancy, confirmed in an email that some of the land might be eligible for preservation by his group and working farms usually meet the criteria, though he was not familiar with the property.

The site, Graves said, has about a mile of riverfront area and varied terrain, including wooded bluffs. Amenities include a cross-country course, 210 horse stalls, an area for horse washing and backcountry and RV camping. He said not all the land lends itself to horse activities. The site includes one large western arena and three jumping arenas and three full-size dressage arenas.

KARM’s program

In response to the New Market community criticisms, McCartney sent a letter to KARM donors explaining the reasoning behind the purchase.

“At KARM, we believe our God-given mission is to ‘restore lives in Jesus’ name.’ We believe we cannot sit on the sidelines while addiction is killing so many men and women ... and destroying so many families,” she stated in the letter. She stated the facility will be like the Serenity facility in East Knoxville which is “for women wanting to break free from addiction, domestic violence and homelessness. 

“We need to offer men a place away from immediate temptations of the city—where they can breathe, heal, confront past traumas and the ‘whys’ of their addiction, and take steps toward healing and restoration,” she stated. She stated drugs would be too available in Knoxville for a program to work well there.

The program, she said “will provide men willing to commit to a 12-to-18-month work-learn-serve program with a strong support system designed to restore them back to God, family, themselves and their community.” 

All men entering the program must complete multiple interviews, mental and emotional assessments and background screenings. The program will not admit sex offenders. It won’t be a clinically based social or medical detox program for active drug addicts. Individuals who need such services will be referred to other agencies.

McCartney told Hellbender Press in an interview KARM plans to preserve the site and its history.

“There’s just something about God’s masterpiece and His handiwork and how that lends itself to recovery,” she said regarding the use of a rural site out in nature. 

“We just think it’s absolutely beautiful, and it’s not our intent to turn it into multiple tracts of homes,” she said. “We want to preserve the land, preserve the history.” She also said she would like to have the site open to the community for events or meetings. While she said the future programs were not certain, she said equine assisted therapy might be a good use of the existing horse facilities on the site. She also said she hoped to clean up the site’s trails for use by residents and staff.

The way forward

Professional trainer and competitor Mattalyn Rogers heads up Mattalyn Rogers Dressage, based in a barn anchoring one of the few private farms remaining along Alcoa Highway between downtown Knoxville and McGhee Tyson Airport. She has shown, coached and competed at River Glen. She is looking forward to the possibility of the nonprofit managing the venue. Rogers noted that River Glen is especially valuable for regional “eventing,” which are competitions that encompass dressage, show jumping and cross country. They require a bigger natural and utility footprint.

“My belief is that the way forward is having venues such as River Glen and other equestrian centers as non-profit partnerships with organizations that benefit the community rather than just the elite,” she said in a statement to Hellbender Press.

“Most of the people who enjoy horses are normal people who make very large sacrifices in order to be involved in horses in some capacity.

“A thriving equestrian community is a huge asset to any area. Horses have the ability to give confidence and self-worth to those that lack it. They instill empathy in us and challenge us to look beyond ourselves,” Rogers said.

“They encourage responsibility and compassion and respect without even asking for it.

“We have so much to learn from horses and are so fortunate to have places like River Glen to make horses and the enjoyment of horses more accessible.

“I personally am very thankful for them being open and creative to finding a way to preserve the beautiful land by the Holston River for the equestrian community, and the community at large with the possibility of sharing the land with a nonprofit to help others and preserve the land for future generations to enjoy,” she said.

IMG 2562Mattalyn Rogers rides a debut dressage test on self-trained horse Windrose at River Glen in May 2018 while six months pregnant. Courtesy Mattalyn Rogers Dressage

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