Frequently Asked Questions

Expanding on the vision for a Nature Discovery Center

As we gather feedback from the community about the proposed Nature Discovery Center, we will try to provided additional details here as requested by you. If you have a question that is not covered in the project description or in the list below, please let us know at questions@landtrustnal.org.

 

What is the timeline for this project?

There is currently no established timeline for this project. We are simply gauging interest from the community and gathering feedback. We want to hear what our supporters and the community-at-large think about the proposed facility to determine feasibility of this vision.

 

How will this project be funded? What is the estimated cost of the facility?

This project would require significant support from the community, which is one reason we value your input. Everything we do requires your support and this project is no different. Our goal at this time is to gather as much feedback as possible from our community and supporters so we can determine the viability of this project. If we move forward with the proposed Nature Discovery Center, we would begin a fundraising campaign to raise the amount needed. We are still working with the architect to determine the estimated costs of the Center, knowing that we are currently in a volatile market. 

 

Will this facility offer event space?

No, the proposed Nature Discovery Center is intended to serve as an educational facility and will not include event space. We are determined to avoid mission creep with this project. While event rentals can generate income, they also require substantial expense to operate and maintain. However, the conference room may be made available for daytime corporate gatherings, when our staff is already on-site to accommodate small groups. We might also allow partner organizations to host classes or presentations for the community. These types of programs might take place after 5 PM but would be limited to small group gatherings (not to exceed parking capacity). For example, The local orinthological organization might host a presentation about birding in our area. Currently, the largest event we hold indoors is our Annual Member Reception. The past several years we have hosted this at the Monte Sano Lodge with around 150 people typically in attendance. This event is a come-and-go format from 5-7 PM so all attendees are not present at the same time. 

 

Will this facility be used for school field trips?

Yes. Education programming would be a primary purpose of the Nature Discovery Center. We currently host a handful of small school groups each year but many schools require field trips that can accommodate an entire grade level at one time. A Nature Discovery Center would allow us to do that. The building is designed to offer a variety of flexible indoor/outdoor spaces where we could divide students into break out groups to present information or activities and then lead them directly out onto our trails. For this reason, it was critical for the location to provide direct access to Land Trust trails and this particular site offers spaces to demonstrate a variety of environments, features, and historic content within a short hike.

 

People learn to love nature by experiencing it. How would classes inside a building help?

It is not our goal to host education programs that only take place inside a classroom. We are currently limited in our ability to host school field trips and provide environmental education opportunities to the community. This facility would make it possible to bring school groups to our properties and provide the community with a public space focused on highlighting our region and all of its natural treasures. Visitors to the Nature Discovery Center would certainly begin inside the facility but our goal is to inspire them and make them feel comfortable to explore beyond those walls. Our goal is to lead them out onto the trails to see it all in person because we agree that experiencing nature is how we learn to value it. For many though, nature is not inviting but instead is scary and uncertain. We hope that by creating a welcoming space we can help dissolve that reluctance to explore. 

 

Will there be educational exhibits open to the public? 

Yes. The large main space where visitors enter the facility will be our public exhibit space. In this area, visual displays and interactive exhibits will tell the story of North Alabama’s natural world. This will be a gathering space for members of our community to learn about unique natural features and species found in our area. This public space, however, was also designed to serve as an additional overflow for our education programs which is why it is labelled “flexible learning space”. 

 

Why does this facility include classrooms?

The primary purpose of this facility is to educate the community about the value of our natural world. That certainly means reaching children and students of all ages. The classroom spaces are designed with input from local educators to provide everything needed to host environmental education field trips for school groups. However, when envisioning this floorplan we tried to create flexible spaces that will adapt to our changing needs. Classrooms are designed to be easily converted for other uses, such as programs, lectures, and demonstrations so we can offer educational opportunities to our community beyond field trips.

 

Will there be an admission fee?

No. The Nature Discovery Center, like all Land Trust nature preserves, would be open to the public at no charge. The facility would provide visitors information about places to hike and enjoy nature around the area and offer interactive exhibits to learn about our natural environment. Certain education programs may require a fee to participate.

 

Why does the facility include administrative offices?

We hope to have welcoming faces available to greet our visitors and answer questions. While we hope to do this with the volunteer support, incorporating administrative offices into the facility allows us to ensure the building is staffed even when volunteers are not available and without the need for additional staff members. Staff members will also coordinate and manage education programs that take place at the facility. The Land Trust currently has 9 staff members, including 5 full-time employees and 4 part-time. 

 

Was the Land Trust‘s Bankhead Trailhead considered as a potential site? If so, why was it not selected?

Bankhead Trailhead was considered as a possible location (along with a few other locations detailed below). The Bankhead location has a significant slope which means the construction process would disturb a much larger area in order to prep the site for a building and construction cost would also increase. This area was also problematic because a large portion includes the City of Huntsville’s old dumpsite, which means in order to build on the land the dumpsite would have to be excavated to find solid ground. This process would create a significant disruption to the surrounding area. Also, the cost to run utilities to this site was much higher because of the distance from existing connections. 

 

What other sites were considered?

The following locations were also evaluated as potential sites for the Nature Discovery Center. The primary reason for each not being pursued follows:

Chapman Mountain Nature Preserve: Access to this property is challenging. The access is hidden and even with signage on the roadway, many users do not see the entrance.  Also, with only right turn in and right turn out capability, people coming from Huntsville must make a u-turn at Moores Mill and return to the entrance. 

Blevins Gap Nature Preserve: Water service is not available to this location. A new water reservoir would have to be constructed to serve the site.

 

Why not find a location to build the Nature Discovery Center at Monte Sano State Park or Burritt on the Mountain? 

Although we consider them excellent partners, Land Trust of North Alabama is not associated with Monte Sano State Park or Burritt on the Mountain. A goal of this project would be to establish a distinct identity to help build awareness of our mission. Many people still mistakenly believe the Land Trust of North Alabama is funded by the city or state and associated with the state park in some way. A Nature Discovery Center would help the Land Trust establish a clearer presence in the community and distinguish our mission from that of others.

 

Why not use an existing building or build a new facility in an area that is already developed? 

We considered many options along these lines over the years as different spaces became available. However, in order to serve its intended purpose, it is critical that the Nature Discovery Center provide direct access to Land Trust property where we can welcome visitors to our trails and help people learn about the value of nature. 

 

Will this development impact wildlife and plant life? 

It is no secret that ANY alteration (including trail building, parking lots, fences, pavilions) to natural lands can impact the flora and fauna that call those lands home. With that in mind, the Land Trust takes the proposal of any changes to any of our properties very seriously. Each time we choose to open land to the public, we have the difficult work of determining an appropriate balance between the need to protect the history, species, and features of that land and the need to educate our community about the value of the natural world. It is education and interaction with the land that inspires people to give so that we have the ability to continue our work and preserve new spaces across North Alabama. The building of a Nature Discovery Center at the proposed site on Monte Sano Nature Preserve is no different. Although there is no question that the land will be altered, the fact that there was significant land disturbance in years past (the construction of the railroad up to the Monte Sano Hotel) and considerable development in the immediate vicinity indicates that this area of the mountain has already been significantly impacted by human development. Again, we do not take this decision lightly and can never minimize the value that our properties provide to the animals, plants and people who interact with them daily. However, we do feel that through this project we can invite new members of our community to experience that value in person so that they understand the importance of preserving similar spaces in the communities they call home. And in doing so, we can protect new habitats, plants and animals as North Alabama grows.

 

How will trails surrounding the proposed site be impacted?

The western ends of Watts Trail, Toll Gate Trail, and Old Railroad Bed Trail will be closed during construction but otherwise the impact to the hiking trails in the surrounding area will be minimal. We intend to minimize our disruption of the area as much as possible and that includes access to our trails. Watts Trail is the only trail that would be impacted long-term according to the proposed plan. The western-most end of the trail would be interrupted by the entrance driveway but we plan to reroute it and the parking area for the Nature Discovery Center would provide trailhead parking.

 

What type of parking would this facility include?

The proposed parking lot would provide space for 50-60 cars. This parking area would serve the facility and provide additional trailhead parking for the Monte Sano Nature Preserve trail system. We hope that by adding trailhead parking to this popular area of the preserve we will alleviate parking problems that Fagan Springs Apartments has experienced. The entrance to the parking lot will be located on Tollgate Road, directly across from Fagan Springs Apartments, south of the intersection of Bankhead Parkway and Toll Gate Road.

 

What commitment will be made about lighting and light pollution in order to not disrupt the surrounding environment and residential properties? 

Lighting for the building and parking area will not stay on throughout the night. Lights will be turned off when the building and parking lot is closed for the day. The exception may be some sort of limited security lighting. With few exceptions, the Nature Discovery Center would close when our trails close at sundown. Even when hosting small after-hours programs (see “Will this facility offer event space?”), we do not anticipate that the facility would remain open past 9 PM, meaning the parking lot would be closed and lights would be turned off. 

 

What impact will this facility have on traffic and roads in the area? 

We consulted with the City of Huntsville Traffic Engineering Department about the traffic impact. Traffic counts were conducted and the results show the existing roads have adequate capacity. Given the proposed facility and its use, traffic engineering does not believe that the anticipated traffic associated with this facility will have a negative impact on traffic in the area. Most of the traffic generated by the facility will be at off peak times. It is anticipated that buses will be used for school field trips. A typical grade includes 120 students, which can be accommodated in 2-4 buses (depending on whether the school uses 40 or 70 seat buses). There will be increased traffic in the area during construction. If we move forward, we would develop a construction plan and could provide more information on expected changes.

 

Please share details about security plans for the building and parking lot? 

The entrance to the parking lot will be gated and closed after-hours. The building will be monitored/alarmed. Like all of our trailheads, we would work with the police department to address any suspicious activity or problems that arise. 

 

How visible will the building be from the street or from nearby homes?

Limiting impact on the area and visibility of the Center from the surrounding streets and neighborhoods was a primary consideration during the layout process. Our goal is for the Nature Discovery Center to feel nestled in the woods and provide visitors an immersive experience. It is also our goal to minimize our disturbance of the land as much as possible. Only trees within the area necessary to accommodate the construction of the Nature Discovery Center, parking area and drive would be cleared.

The proposed location of the facility is pulled north from the southern property line and the structure is placed over 300 feet from Toll Gate Road. The closest point of the parking area to Toll Gate Road is 100 feet. The closest house to the Center is over 500 feet away and the closest house to any portion of the project is 250 feet to the driveway entrance. The distances in themselves limit visibility, as does the elevation change across the property. Also, vegetation exists between the proposed building location and homes that will not be disturbed.

 

What will the standard hours of operation be?  

Land Trust offices are currently open Monday – Friday from 8 AM – 4 PM. However, we hope to staff the Nature Discovery Center while our trails are open (dawn to dusk daily) so we can greet visitors and answer questions. This would require coordinating current staff schedules as well as recruiting volunteer support. Hours may vary throughout the year (as sunrise and sunset times fluctuate). We are uncertain about some of the administrative details at this time. 

 

On average, how many staff members will report there each day?

We currently have 7 staff members who would report to the Nature Discovery Center on weekdays. We also have 2 additional staff members who work primarily in the field but would stop by periodically. The conference room is designed with flexible work stations along one wall that would provide work areas for our staff members who do not work in the office on a daily basis as well as volunteers who assist with administrative tasks. We also expect volunteer support to help man the information desk and greet visitors. However, the reception area is designed with a window into the administrative offices so our receptionist or another staff member could assist visitors when the information desk is not manned. It is our goal to avoid creating a need for additional staff as a result of the facility so the space has been designed to function with current staff. 

 

What are the zoning requirements for this type of development?

Since the proposed site is currently zoned residential, we would request a zoning variance from the city in order to proceed. The variance would only apply to this specific project. No zoning changes would be made to the surrounding area or allow for any development outside of this facility.

 

Will the building be self-sustaining? Will the Land Trust have sufficient funds to maintain this facility?

A business plan to address this question will be prepared as more details are formulated about the Center. We have investigated other local, comparably sized buildings to estimate costs, such as utilities, cleaning services, maintenance, etc. The goal is to stay within range of our current monthly facility costs, and our current information indicates this is doable.

 

Are there any discussions/plans to incorporate green energy into the facility?

We have looked into solar power but unfortunately because of the tree coverage it would not be feasible. However, we plan to consider any other available options.