Missouri rails-to-trails project draws opposition

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

CARL JUNCTION, Mo. -- Plans to convert a 29-mile stretch of abandoned railroad line in Missouri and Kansas into a recreational trail has created a tug-of-war between landowners and outdoor enthusiasts.

The proposal calls for the old Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway line to be made into a trail that would allow people to walk and bicycle from Columbus, Kan., through Carl Junction before ending in Carthage.

The arguments for and against are being heard in southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas.

Paul Teverow, president of Joplin Trail Coalition, said the trail would improve the quality of life and draw new visitors to the area. It also would allow joggers and bicyclers to get from Joplin to Carthage while being on roadway for only a short stretch.

Robert Medley of Joplin said the trail would offer a quiet place to gather thoughts.

"You can commune with God, birds, nature," said Medley, who became a regular path walker after undergoing heart bypass surgery in 1995. "You're not confined in a building. This is fresh atmosphere."

Studies also have shown a trail can generate the creation and expansion of businesses related to it, and trail users will spend money on items like food and drinks, clothing and equipment. Houses built near trails or pathways increase in value and are desired by homeowners.

Opponents are vehement in their arguments, starting with the thorny issue of landowner rights. Current landowners with property signed away when the railroads were built believe the land should be returned to them.

Dewey Smith, Cherokee County (Kan.) Commissioner for District 2, opposes the trail and believes many others in southeast Kansas think likewise. Half of the 12-mile portion of the proposed trail goes through Smith's district.

"I think the land should go back to the landowners. (The trail) would be a nuisance to the farmers because it would go through their land," he said.

Smith also doesn't believe many of the roughly 20,000 people living in Cherokee County would use the trail.

"I can't see too many people walking 12 miles out in the country," Smith said.

Some also are angry over what they see as little more than modern-day land grabbing.

Paul Hance spearheaded a petition drive during the summer from his southwest Missouri lumberyard that totaled nearly 500 signatures against the proposed trail. The trail would go through land that, according to the deed Hance holds for his 90 acres in Carl Junction, should have been returned to him more than a decade ago.

The deed was drafted in 1876 and filed in Carthage in 1928. Hance bought the property in 1962. Burlington Northern has not run a train through Carl Junction since 1992.

"The deed states it goes back to the landowner. It is no longer used for a railroad," Hance said.

Carl Junction school officials also believe the proposed trail may further magnify some existing safety issues for students. They also worry about the extra liability of being situated along the a trail.

School superintendent Larry Thomas has asked that the section of the track that splits the campus be annexed to the school system. No action has been taken on that request.

Teverow has asked those who are against the trails to get in touch with people who live near them and see if the problems that opponents say will occur do exist before reaching any conclusions.

Meanwhile, Hance said he has continued to get a great deal of support, and believes trail organizers are shortsighted.

"I'm still going to fight this," he said.

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