DUNLAP, TENN. - When Ed Lewis and some of his neighbors bought property on a scenic Tennessee mountain, they knew they didn’t own the mineral rights to the land, but they assumed a coal mining revival was unlikely.
They never imagined anyone would try to claim ownership of all the ordinary mountain rocks on their land.
Demand for the rocks has surged across the country as stone has become more popular in houses, commercial buildings and landscaping. Now, the former owner of Lewis’ property who retained the mineral rights wants to harvest the rocks.
Lewis and his neighbors in Sequatchie County — located in southeast Tennessee just north of Chattanooga — say if the mineral rights owners are allowed to take the rocks, their scenic bluffs and mountain land covered with hardwoods and evergreens will be ruined by blasting and bulldozers.
Now a court must decide if the sandstone, fieldstone and flagstone on Fredonia Mountain are minerals. It’s a legal fight that could have implications for many landowners who don’t own the mineral rights in their land.
An attorney for Lewis and the other property owners, Keith Grant of Dunlap, said he was not aware of any precedent case that sets up rules for when rocks could be considered minerals.
Separate ownership of surface rights and mineral rights is fairly common in this region, due to the coal mining history. Even some residential neighborhood developers may not have mineral rights, Grant said.
Roy Rumfelt, director of real property for neighboring Hamilton County in Chattanooga, said “it’s the same all over the state ... About 50 percent of the properties are owned by people who don’t own the mineral rights.”
But it hasn’t been an issue since Tennessee has become a relatively small-scale coal producer. That all changed with the recent boom in rock and stone for construction.
Domestic production of what the industry calls dimension stone — distinguished from crushed rock — rose about 19 percent between 2001 and 2005, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s produced in about 35 states, with Indiana leading production.
The rocks in Tennessee range in colors from off-white to dark gray, and they commonly sell for more than $150 for a 2-ton pallet.
They are shipped across the country where they are used in house walls, fireplaces, fences and landscaping, said Beth Cartwright, an employee at Cagle Mountain Stone in Dunlap.
“Now you can drive up and down the road and they (stone dealers) are opening one up everywhere you look,” Cartwright said. “I’m selling a tractor-trailer, maybe two, a day.”
Lewis, 64, retired to Tennessee after a career as a maintenance worker in northwest Georgia. He describes his purchase of the 46-acre mountaintop spot in 2001 as “my life’s ambition.”
The plaintiff in the suit, George Avery Land and his wife, Faye Land, went to court in 2004 after they were denied access to harvest stone on 164 acres. Their attorney, Thomas Greer Jr. of Dunlap, said the Lands retained mineral rights when they sold the property. Subsequent purchases of the property only transferred ownership of “surface rights” above the ground, he said.
“The general rule is that anything of exceptional value that lies in or under the soil is part of the land itself,” Greer said.
Records at the Sequatchie County Courthouse show the judge who initially had the case recused himself because he owns mountain land and “would be bound by this ruling as well.”
No stone harvesting has started in the disputed areas, and Greer said depositions are set in December.
He said the lawsuit would likely go before a Chattanooga judge sometime next spring.
Tracy McDaniel, whose family bought 66 acres on the mountain a decade ago, has become the lead activist against allowing owners of mineral rights to harvest rocks on property whose resident or absentee owners object.
Some rock harvesters lease land and pay a royalty to owners.
Some of the defendants’ neighbors not involved in the dispute have started harvesting stone on their own properties themselves.
Standing in ankle deep leaves amid a stand of hardwoods near her home, Mc-Daniel predicted that a court ruling that a rock is a mineral means a life-altering change for her family, a change from solitude to “dynamite and dozers and heavy equipment.”
“People have told us, ‘You’ve got a lot of money in rock.’ That’s not what we bought it for,” said McDaniel, whose family operates a recycling business in Dunlap.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation monitors rock harvesting for pollutant discharges and interference with waterways. Department officials said permits are not issued to harvest stone from streams.
But the state “has no legal authority to determine surface rights versus mineral rights and/or property ownership,” said department spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton.