County officials: Concerns of trails plan abuzz on social media

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GREENFIELD — Following a vote last week pushing the Hancock County Trails Plan forward, county officials say they’ve received backlash from property owners and seen misinformation about the plan circulating on social media.

The Hancock County Area Plan Commission on Oct. 23 unanimously approved the trails plan after a public hearing on the issue, where more than 120 people came out to discuss the plan. The commission removed a section of a Pennsy-style multi-use trail from the plan along County Road 600N, between McCordsville and County Road 200W, after hearing property owner complaints.

A committee and paid consultants have been working on the revised trails plan since late 2017.

Gary Pool, county engineer, told the Hancock County Commissioners this week that several property owners concerned about the trails plan contacted him over the past week, many saying they’re afraid the county will take away their land to build trails. That’s not true, he said, since the plan is simply a vision and not a blueprint to seize people’s property. The trails plan is an update to a 2012 plan.

Pool said even though he’s in favor of having a trails plan, he advised the commissioners to not adopt the revision next week as scheduled. The plan had suffered a poorly informed public relations campaign online, Pool said.

“We’ve missed something locally,” he added.

After last week’s meeting, Pool said, many people incorrectly posted on Facebook that the plan would allow the county to take away property to build the suggested trails, including a proposed expansion of the Pennsy Trail. The county would work with property owners if officials ever pursue adding trails, he said.

Pool said he doesn’t want the misinformation on the trails plan to derail progress made by Pennsy Trails of Hancock County in working with county landowners on the best locations for a possible expansion. The organization for years has wanted to connect the trail between Greenfield and Cumberland.

The idea to update the county trails plan began a few years ago when Hancock County’s seven municipalities received a $25,000 grant from the Hancock County Community Foundation and also a $75,000 match from multiple local organizations.

The consultants on the project, Indianapolis-based Butler, Fairman & Seufert Civil Engineers and Health by Design, an initiative of Indianapolis nonprofit Alliance for Health Promotion, as well as a committee of 43 local representatives held several public meetings about the plan in Hancock County communities.

From those meetings and more than 900 public comments in person or online, the design firms made changes to the plan, such as removing a proposed trail between County Roads 600N and 100N near Mohawk, said Alan Hamersly, a consultant with Butler, Fairman & Seufert.

Brad Armstrong, president of the board of commissioners, said the trails plan process didn’t seem to balance the needs of residents on both sides of the issue — rural property owners who don’t want trails connecting communities and area planners and organization representatives who want a more robust county trail system.

“The objective would’ve been find trail routes that work,” Armstrong said if the plan would start over now. “Not, draw a line across property owners and stir up a bunch of issues.”

Armstrong reiterated to the consultants that the county didn’t pay for the trails plan revision, and the board of commissioners didn’t think an update was necessary.

Hamersly said if the commissioners don’t approve the revised plan and the 2012 plan stays in effect, the proposed trail through Mohawk won’t be withdrawn from the map as well as trails running along creek beds through county property owners’ back yards southwest of Fortville. Hamersly also said the updated plan suggested pedestrian- and bike-friendly lanes along roads in the eastern part of the county.

“This isn’t going to be implemented tomorrow, next week, next year, in the next five years,” Hamersly said about the “flexible” county plan. “It’s a vision for what could happen and might be the best route.”

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The commissioners will discuss and decide whether to vote on the trails plan at their next meeting at 8 a.m. Monday in the Hancock County Courthouse Annex, 111 American Legion Place, Greenfield. The Commissioners Court is just inside the main entrance.

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