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Pros, cons of Pennsy Trail connector discussed

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Doug Schildmier (right) spoke with trail advocate Mary Ann Wietbrock and representatives from First Group Engineering Thursday about a proposed map that would connect the Pennsy Trail from Cumberland to Greenfield. Schildmier owns farm land along the proposed route and says the trail should go farther south to benefit more neighborhoods in the Gem area. (Maribeth Vaughn/Daily Reporter)
Doug Schildmier (right) spoke with trail advocate Mary Ann Wietbrock and representatives from First Group Engineering Thursday about a proposed map that would connect the Pennsy Trail from Cumberland to Greenfield. Schildmier owns farm land along the proposed route and says the trail should go farther south to benefit more neighborhoods in the Gem area. (Maribeth Vaughn/Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — Reaction was mixed Thursday during a lively discussion about whether to connect the Pennsy Trail between Greenfield and Cumberland.

An informational meeting gave the public a glimpse of a trail that would bridge the 4.5-mile gap between the two communities. If constructed, there would be 13.5 total miles of contiguous trail in Hancock County just south of U.S. 40.

For proponents, the roughly $7.2 million project makes sense for the health and quality of life of local residents. But opponents – many of them property owners who worry their land will be taken through eminent domain – say it’s just too expensive and could bring crime and vandalism into their rural neighborhoods.

“I’d like to know how many people want this trail to go through the middle of their back yard,” said Doug Schildmier, who owns agricultural land between CRs 500W and 600W south of U.S. 40.

The old Pennsylvania Railroad bed just south of U.S. 40 has already been turned into a hiking and biking trail in two stretches: about six miles in Greenfield and three miles in Cumberland. The 4.5-mile stretch between CRs 150W and 600W is currently unpaved and in the hands of private landowners.

For the past two years, a group of advocates – the Sugar Creek Pennsy Trail Committee – has discussed how to bridge the gap and whether to apply for federal grant funds. But Hancock County Commissioner Brad Armstrong said grants will take too long, and a better way to gauge how the community feels about the project is to put a bond issue to a public vote.

A $30,000 study was done to create a possible alignment plan, and Thursday’s meeting presented findings from that study.

The proposed trail would cut straight down the middle of Schildmier’s land, which he says is the only piece on his 70 acres that doesn’t flood.

“I put my hay back there; many (pieces of) high-dollar equipment I park back there so it doesn’t flood,” he said.

But he’s not entirely against the concept, so long as the path steers clear of his property. Schildmier suggests veering the trail farther south, to provide greater access to hundreds of homes in nearby neighborhoods.

That would benefit residents like Nancy Tibbott, who spoke in favor of the project at Thursday’s meeting.

“I do not have property that runs on the trail, so I empathize (with property owners), but if we can find a way for the trail to go in and go around people who don’t want to sell or use, that would benefit the entire county,” said Tibbott, who lives in the Gem area.

Other advocates said the trail connection could attract young families and new businesses to the area and would be a safe solution to riding bikes or walking along rural county roads.

And while opponents raised concerns about vandalism and criminal activity, proponents said that’s simply not going to be a major issue.

“Most of the people using the trail are enthusiasts; … individuals that aren’t wreaking havoc or vandalizing,” Tibbott said.

Greenfield and Cumberland officials spoke to the group about how there have been very few problems with vandalism or criminal activity along their stretches of the trail. In the last four years in Greenfield, for example, there were only two criminal mischief calls along the trail; one drug-activity call; and two calls reporting off-road vehicles, said Greenfield Parks Department maintenance foreman Jim McWhinney.

“People are wanting to get exercise; they’re not wanting to do damage on the trail,” McWhinney said.

But folks like Merrilee Loh weren’t buying it. Loh owns storage units along CR 200W just south of U.S. 40. While the trail could be a community asset during the day, she said, it could also be a teenage hangout at night.

“It’s isolated,” she said. “You’re just building where it’s nice in the day but don’t forget there’s 24 hours in a day. You may think you’re creating good, but it may become the sore spot in the whole town.”

Her neighbor, Norman Hammons, owns an outside storage property just west of where the current Greenfield portion of the trail ends. Hammons said people already park on his land and litter. Even though the proposed trail alignment would go just south of his property, he hopes fencing is installed to make sure people don’t trespass.

Hammons said after the meeting that county officials might as well go ahead and have a public vote on the plan because it probably will fail.

 “Nobody wants their taxes raised; they’re already high enough,” Hammons said.

Just how much land would have to be purchased for the project and where exactly the trail would go is still in flux. There are 26 parcels along the old Pennsylvania Railroad bed that could be affected, but engineer Dennis Cobb presented a map that shows dips and curves along the route to avoid buildings and developments that are already along the railroad bed.

Armstrong said that was done for a reason: to affect as few people as possible, which could make purchasing negotiations for land smoother. Armstrong insists eminent domain would be the last resort for purchasing land.

Armstrong still thinks a public vote is the way to go for the project. If the public is in favor of the trail connection, it could be completed in about four years and cost roughly $7.2 million. While applying for federal grants would mean less of an expense on local property tax payers – $5.6 million – it would also be a much lengthier and complicated process, at 15 years to complete.

“My goal was to have a dedicated source to fund a project through completion, where you know where your taxpayer dollars are going,” Armstrong said. “(A referendum) would mean the public would say either, ‘I want to spend money,’ or, ‘I don’t want to spend money on this project.’ ”

Armstrong said a presentation will likely be made to the entire board of county commissioners about the trail connection in the next month or so. If the majority of the three-member board wants to make the project a priority, Armstrong said the process of taking out a bond and getting it on the ballot will begin.

Larry Lindley, president of the Sugar Creek Pennsy Trail Committee, said the meeting went about as he expected.

“The objections that were raised at the meeting have been raised before,” he said. “Some of them are serious and real concerns; some of them are imaginary things, I’m afraid. Of course, in a situation like that, the people opposed tend to be the most vocal. But there were quite a few supporters there.”

Lindley also believes taking out a bond and putting the issue up for a public vote is a better route than applying for federal grants and building the trail little by little.

“The bond certainly seems preferable, just from a ‘get it done’ point of view,” he said.

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