Different people want different things for the Royal Oaks subdivision.

It’s a large swath of Maryville land that used to be a more exclusive, gated community centered around a golf course. But things have changed over time, and a year after the course suddenly closed, things may be about to take the another unexpected turn.

That’s mostly because of a group called the Royal Oaks Conservancy, an organized 501(c)(3) that wants to turn the empty land nestled inside and on the outskirts of the subdivision into a park, not new homes.

The Conservancy will hold an event on one of the old course’s holes this Saturday focused on getting the word out.

The group has evolved rapidly since its genesis in late 2018 and this weekend represents not only a big step forward, but a litmus test.

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to reach out in the community,” Conservancy President Matt Jagnow told The Daily Times in an interview. Jagnow — professionally the Regional Director of Development at UT Health and Science Center — and his wife Meghan — a marketing manager at UT — are recent Tennessee transplants. The couple moved to Maryville in March of 2018 and almost immediately, Jagnow saw an opportunity to make positive change in his backyard.

In November 2018 the Conservancy became incorporated with the state, in January they voted in a board of directors and in June they officially gained 501(c)(3) status.

But the whole thing started out as something personal and almost literally in Jagnow’s own living room.

“We found out just a few months after we moved here, after all sorts of assurances that the golf course wasn’t closing, that it was closing,” he said. The couple aren’t golfers, but bought the property for one of the reasons many in Royal Oaks do: the view.

After the the course was shuttered in 2018, the Jagnows weren’t the only ones concerned about what would happen to the neighborhood. When it closed, home and business developers pounced.

Since then, holes have been coveted, sold and even developed.

But the Conservancy had a different idea.

“For us, this is the kind of thing where we have this nice wide open space that has great accessibility, has great opportunity. And, it’s either going to go to development or it’s going to go to (a) park,” Jagnow said.

Park advocates first started meeting in his home in handfuls. But the interest soon grew to around 50 people. Meetings moved out of the house and into the community clubhouse.

Now, with a board and a variety of interests from the city, meetings with strategic design professionals out of Knoxville and the event on Saturday to push the word out to the community, plans to change the abandoned golf holes into sustainable, ecologically-focused green space are coming to fruition.

Restoration

Right now there are just a little more than 100 acres of unused space in Royal Oaks, according to Jagnow.

Around 45 to 50 of those may be eligible for park space. But it’s going to take not only the blessing of the community, but also soil replacement, watershed analysis and a lot of money to make this happen.

The golf course holes have been so inundated with years of traffic and chemicals that restoring the land is going to be a task, Jagnow explained.

“The biggest thing is making sure we’re bringing back in native species, instead of ... things ... that don’t serve an ecological purpose,” he added. “So things like Japanese Maples, which we’ve got plenty of, don’t exactly help when it comes to birds, bees and wildlife habitat.”

That’s one of the reasons Conservancy leaders want to get groups like the Blount County Soil Conservation District involved.

“We also view this as an educational opportunity,” Jagnow said. Not only would school benefit from the area as a place to study natural wildlife, scientists could use it as a study for what goes into restoring a golf course land to an ecologically sustainable environment.

Given that there are more than 2.2 million acres of golf course land in the U.S. according to the Golf Course Superintendents of America, such studies could be useful beyond beautifying subdivision backyards.

The city’s interest

Jagnow’s interests are not only shared by his board and many Royal Oaks community members — he said that only two people have expressed their dislike of the proposition thus far.

Maryville sees a benefit as well.

City Manager Greg McClain has already met with the group along with Parks & Rec Director Joe Huff. McClain has expressed positive outlook on the Conservancy’s plans in planning meetings.

“I think where you strike the balance is what goes in there serves the community,” McClain told planning commissioners in a July workshop. The commission has dealt with numerous development requests, possibilities and problems since the closing of the golf course and discussions have been centered around finding a solution that works for residents, not just developers.

Officials have said that, in the long run, they don’t really need the tax revenue from development and even Jagnow said that there are more fiscal and aesthetic values to green space.

He said there are currently more than 430 homes in the subdivision now, but there are at least 560 homes planned or in development that would be in walking distance to proposed parks.

Concerns about potential crime issues in what would be a public space are present, but that hasn’t prevented discussions about what a Royal Oaks parks space would mean for the city in the long run. Jagnow said there have been talks about what it would look like for the city to potentially inherit those parks at some point in the future.

But for now, the Conservancy is just trying to find a way to collect the money needed to buy the land and figure out the next steps after that. They’re working closely with parties including Maryville government, the East Tennessee Community Design Center and local landscapers to plan not only for those next steps, but for the long term as well.

“We know that it serves us and the community better if it goes to a park,” Jagnow said of the empty golf holes. “The city and the parks and greenways and everything, they’ve put a lot of time and money into building it out. But we’re in a part of town where that hasn’t hit yet. So, the only option for us is to step up and try and make something happen if we want it to be here.”

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