Rail Trail: Luxury or necessity?

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MANCHESTER — The purchase of a proposed Rail Trail, running from Manchester to Dorset along the tracks of the old Manchester, Dorset and Granville Railroad Co., may come before voters as soon as Manchester's 2018 Town Meeting.

While advocates claim that the trail will expand outdoor recreation opportunities in the region, promote commerce and tourism, and provide off-road bicycling options for residents and visitors, the project has not found unanimous support in the Manchester community.

Abutting landowners claim that the trail invades their privacy and endangers their security, while others have questioned the potential costs of the project.

Though the initial purchase may total up to $100,000, proposed improvements and development are estimated to cost between $1.3 million and $1.4 million — a large percentage of which is expected to be subsidized by federal funding.

As debate continues on the project, the issue will ultimately be decided by the citizens of Manchester: is the Rail Trail a luxury, or a necessity?

A contribution to the community

Initially purchased in 2009 by the limited liability corporation "Old Railroad Bed" — formed by local cycling enthusiasts Bill Drunsic, Jim Hand, and Robin and Amy Verner — Manchester's Rail Trail has a rich history dating back to 1902, having been most often used to transport marble from the Dorset Quarry alongside the occasional passenger.

For more than two decades, however, the group has hoped to turn the decaying railroad into a recreational path for cycling, walking, running, and other non-motorized activity. While the $34,614 purchase of the property marked a major milestone in that process, the group was presented with a roadblock almost immediately.

Shortly after the purchase, Old Railroad Bed's ownership rights were challenged by abutting landowners Ron and Kristen Marcus, alongside intervenors Vernor West, Cathy Cushing, Bradford West, and Don and Eleanor Dykes.

In a suit filed in Vermont Superior Court Civil Division, the neighbors claimed that Old Railroad Bed did not have a right to the property, as it would have reverted back to its original ownership status in 1936. Ultimately, the court ruled in 2014 that the group had not presented enough evidence to show that the land was rightfully theirs.

"We really rallied all of the local property owners because we thought it was wrong," said Ron Marcus. "We fought for years, and now we're fighting it again."

Still, Old Railroad Bed sought to move forward after "the dust settled from the court case," according to Drunsic. The first step in that process came in February 2016, when an advisory vote at Manchester's Town Meeting authorized the town's government to begin estimating costs of the potential purchase and development of the trail.

Since then, the group has worked to rehab the trail with the support of volunteers, even offering guided tours to interested residents and visitors throughout the summer.

"We were very impressed by how much pressure there was on this trail as soon as it became available," said Robin Verner. "The number of people that found out about it, walked it, and enjoyed it was amazing."

Citing a lack of off-road bicycling paths, as well as pressure on existing trail systems in the region, proponents claim that the project is a necessary undertaking.

"The Equinox Preserve is over utilized, and that's a big problem," added Amy Verner. "With these major routes that we have in town it's very difficult for children, even adults, to ride [bicycles] through town."

"It's always been a concern as to where kids can safely ride their bikes in this community," Drunsic said. "They're so much safer to ride without worrying about road traffic, and they become tourist destinations in and of themselves."

Members of the group say it's their dedication to the Manchester community that has driven them to put time and effort into developing the Rail Trail.

"I think this adds to our quality of life substantially here in this community," Drunsic said. "It's another arrow in our quiver which promotes our quality of life, promotes our economic development, and helps to replenish our population while keeping it vibrant and youthful. It's a preservation of our community and our style of life."

"The people of this town have given to us, and we want to pass this on," said Amy Verner. "It won't just bring money into town, but it will help bring families to Manchester who want to live here."

Drunsic asserts that, though the project does have its opponents, the majority of Manchester is on their side. In fact, a number of neighboring landowners have expressed their support for the project.

"It is our general impression that most people in town want to see this going forward," he said. "Most, if not all, of the trails that have been established throughout the country have exhibited nothing but positive experiences."

"When you look at all of the other rail trails throughout the country, it goes through the same process; it's a change for those abutters who dislike it for whatever reason," Hand added. "Once you get through that, you begin to see the opportunities that are also afforded to them."

A loss of privacy, security

When Kristen Marcus looks out of her bedroom window, she can see the trail intersecting the horse pasture in her backyard. As a mother of three, and a survivor of sexual assault, she remains ardent in her opposition to the Rail Trail and the security concerns it raises for her family.

"I feel surrounded to the point where I don't sleep as well anymore,," she said, noting that the family has faced multiple trespassing issues prior to the trail's construction. "I'm bigger than that, and I know that. I've worked so hard to get through all of that."

The Marcuses are concerned that increased activity on the trail will not only endanger themselves and their neighbors, but also invade their privacy.

"When they started taking tours through I just got the weirdest feeling," she said. "Each time I got home and I saw people walking through, it felt like they were in my yard without permission."

According to Ron Marcus, liability is also a concern. Though the trail has not yet opened for public use, the couple claims that they have already had issues with children and dogs entering their horse pasture from the trail.

"We had people come into our property and bring kids into our horse pasture; it's dangerous to say the least," he explained. "We had dogs off leash running after the horses, and when we discussed it with the local police department they said that they really couldn't ticket at this point because it's private property.

Additionally, the couple claims that the trail installation has forced them to purchase extra fencing for their pasture, which is inconveniently bisected by the trail. To move her horses to the back of the pasture, Kristen says, she now has to walk them down the road as she was served a "no trespassing notice" on the trail following the lawsuit.

The potential cost of the trail, and the burden it could place on taxpayers, is also a concern for the couple.

"We want a lot of accountability. When we first moved into this house 30 years ago our taxes were $3,200; they are $8,000 now," said Kristen Marcus. "From a taxpayer's point of view, I want to hold the town accountable when it comes to how they're going to spend that money."

Public or private ownership?

Despite opposition to the trail, Select Board Chair Ivan C. Beattie has made it clear that the project could go forward with or without town involvement.

"The question becomes, who is the best owner and would be the most responsible owner for the path to be developed," he said. "I can't say strongly enough that the property exists, and it is in private ownership."

Drunsic, alongside other proponents, hopes to "turn ownership over to the town by a legitimate sale of the property" at the 2018 Town Meeting. According to Town Manager John O'Keefe, that purchase would ring in at approximately $100,000 if current owners were to be reimbursed for their investments in "acquisition, surveying, some land work, and legal costs." A final cost has not yet been determined.

At the Nov. 21 meeting of the Select Board, O'Keefe presented cost estimates of the necessary upgrades to the trail if the town were to take ownership. Provided by the Dufresne Group, those estimates show that the project would total between $1,333,500 and $1,430,000.

About 80 percent of that cost, however, could be covered by federal funding. While 10 percent ($133,350 to $143,000) would be funded by the town, the remaining 10 percent could be covered through fundraising efforts, O'Keefe suggested.

"This is just an estimate," he said. "For anyone on either side of the bike trail, I wouldn't get too excited about this. The numbers could fluctuate pretty significantly."

At the meeting, both proponents and detractors utilized the discussion to debate the merits of the trail, and whether is was appropriate for the property to come under town ownership.

"My feeling is that this is a capital intensive program that at this stage the town can't commit to," said resident Larry Kukacka. " We're trying to keep taxes low... I think it's something that in combination with the increased maintenance costs will make this cost prohibitive."

"It's a luxury, not a necessity," added Sylvia Jolivette. "I think we're biting off more than we can chew, and we've got other projects that need attention."

Others, however, argued that the project was anything but a luxury.

"We need more recreation trails in this town," said Kathe Dillman of the Equinox Preservation Trust, citing overcrowding on the trails surrounding Equinox Pond. "I've never seen so many people on our trails as I did this summer. This is where America is going; it's not a luxury."

According to Barrack Evans, head of the organization Bike Manchester Vermont and owner of Battenkill Bicycles, the trail would also provide an economic benefit for the town.

"Rail trails are extremely popular; there are over 2,000 in this country and over 28,000 miles of rail trails. There are over 700 in the country in their planning stages for another 8000 miles," he said. "This is because they are success stories."

Opponents, however, argue that the length of this trail does not justify the impact it would have on neighboring landowners.

"This trail is 7,000 feet long, and at least 3,500 feet of this trail is somebody's backyard or somebody's front yard," said Ron Marcus. "This may be one of the shortest rail trails in America. It's small, and incredibly invasive to the people around it."

According to Beattie, town ownership may be the best way to ensure that all parties are treated fairly.

"These people are our constituents and we would be accountable to them, but we are also equally accountable to the owners of the property that want to put the bike trail on it," he said. "In a perfect world it might be best for the town to get the structure and the protection we need from municipal ownership, but for the cost to be borne by someone other than the town."

Reach Cherise Madigan at cmadigan@manchesterjournal.com, or by phone at 802-490-6471.

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