County Commissioners vote to stop pursuing Civil War Railroad Trail bike path

July 10, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |

The Washington County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to stop pursuing a possible 23-mile bike trail.

The plan, estimated to cost about $16 million, drew strong protests at a public meeting in Boonsboro last month.

Without the county’s support, the plan appears likely to die — just as it did when proposed about 20 years ago.

“That’s the end of it, as far as we’re concerned,” said John F. Wilson, the associate director for stewardship within the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ land acquisition and planning unit.

DNR maintains that it owns the land, but uncertainty about that assertion helped derail the plan.

Phase 1 of the Civil War Railroad Trail would have run from Keedysville to Hagerstown and would have taken about 13 years to complete, according to Joseph Kroboth III, Washington County’s public works director. Phase 2, from Keedysville to Weverton, would have taken an estimated 15 years more.

A few hours after the commissioners’ vote, Hagerstown City Councilman William M. Breichner said he considered the rail trail to be a county-driven project the city could not attempt on its own. He said the city informally had expressed support.

Only a small piece of the trail would have been in the city.

During a discussion Tuesday about Maryland Department of Transportation’s offer of $100,000 for a feasibility study for the trail, Commissioner William B. McKinley moved to end the county’s participation in the project entirely.

McKinley said there were too many unanswered questions, so accepting feasibility study money “would be wrong.”

“I have no support for this trail whatsoever,” Commissioner Jeffrey A. Cline said.

Before aligning with her colleagues, Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham wondered about a timeline for possibly gathering information and answering questions, should future commissioners decide to pursue the project.

She asked what would happen if supporters wanted Kroboth to supply information to help their cause. Would he turn them down?

Kroboth said his office is obligated to provide public information when it’s requested. But the commissioners agreed that county staff will not initiate any work on the project anymore.

Ultimately, Callaham joined in, making it a 5-0 vote to step away from the project.

Terry L. Baker, the commissioners’ president, cited a swell of opposition from people who live and own property along the swath where the trail would go.

“We heard ’em loud and clear,” Baker said.

Callaham mentioned a letter from southern Washington County resident William Daly to a Washington, D.C., lawyer, a copy of which Daly shared with the commissioners.

“Several of the neighboring landowners have been talking and we question whether the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) actually owns the land that it claims,” Daly wrote. “Some of the landowners have documents that they believe mean that when the railroad was abandoned in 1978, the land reverted to them and so does not now and never did belong to the State.

“Other landowners have used and occupied the former B&O rail bed for more than the statutory period of 20 years and therefore under Maryland law they, not DNR, own the land.”

Daly wrote that even DNR apparently had doubts about whether the railroad owned the right of way when DNR purchased it.

Other commissioners agreed during their meeting that land ownership was a major concern.

Wilson said Tuesday afternoon that DNR’s position all along has been that it owns the land it bought.

Anyone who contested the ownership could submit documentation and DNR would review it, he said.

“I would have thought if someone had a legitimate claim, it would have come up by now,” Wilson said.

Well over 200 people filled a sweltering upstairs meeting room in Boonsboro’s fire hall last month to comment on the project, with proponents and opponents taking turns.

Supporters said the trail would be another outlet for healthy exercise and could infuse the local economy with money from visitors.

But critics had a long list of reasons against the rail trail, such as the high price tag and the possible crime and noise it could bring. Some raised questions about land ownership and property rights, which were among the reasons Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, cited in a letter opposing the project.

During that meeting, Kroboth told the crowd that another public meeting would be held in a month or two.
Asked Monday if a meeting was scheduled, Kroboth said he was waiting to hear if the commissioners felt another meeting was necessary.

On Tuesday, Kroboth asked the commissioners about accepting DOT funding for a feasibility study. He said the DOT called him with the offer July 1 and he needed to respond by Wednesday.

With one day to make a decision, the commissioners backed away.

In an email, Erin Henson of Maryland DOT’s Office of Public Affairs wrote that Washington County was one of several applicants for DOT’s 2013 Bikeways Program Grants, which require matching money by the local jurisdiction.

Washington County asked for money to design the project, but because the county wasn’t ready for design, DOT suggested money for a feasibility study instead, Henson wrote.

Washington County staff pledged to respond to DOT by Wednesday; DOT didn’t set that deadline, Henson wrote.

Staff Writer C.J. Lovelace contributed to this story.

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