Trail plan: Some hopeful, some not

A local resident takes advantage of the Wabash River Walk Trail on spring afternoon. Photo by Mike Rees

By Emma Rausch & Joseph Slacian

On Friday, May 6, Wabash River Trail Inc. announced ambitious plans for a 33-mile multi-use river walk, connecting Wabash, Huntington and Peru.

Starting in August, the group will be breaking ground with Phase I Sub-Phase I, which will pave a path through Lagro from the east side of Kerr Lock to the end of Basin Street.

Eventually, Phase I will span 6.6 miles, connecting Lagro to Wabash.

However, little to no information has been released on the second and third phases of the three-phase project. That lack of information has landowners in one of those phases – the stretch from Wabash to Peru – quite concerned.

The beginning
The plan began four years ago as a thought in the back of Trail board chair Amy Ford’s mind to connect the city to its neighboring town, Lagro.

“It kind of has been floating around in my head for about four years,” Ford told The Paper of Wabash County. “I ride quite a bit to Lagro on Hill Street Extended and it’s quite the climb to get out of Wabash.”

Hill Street Extended is not very cyclist friendly, either, she continued.

“(It) is really not safe, especially for kids or people that don’t bike very often,” Ford explained. “You just have to be so careful because people are on their phones … and there’s no stops,” she continued. “It’s six miles to Lagro and no crossroads.”

However, those barriers, which could prevent bikers from navigating to the city’s neighboring town, would be eliminated with the addition of the river trail, she continued.

“So I just kind of thought this would be really great, but both girls were still at home so I was too busy with their projects to really wrap my head around this project,” Ford said. “Then after Melissa graduated I had just a bit more time … and I just kind of started verbalizing it and when things start verbalizing for me that’s kind of when they start becoming more of a real project.”

Ford reached out to members of her biking group and other community leaders, and eventually formed the Wabash River Trail, Inc, a non-for-profit organization.

Plan gains momentum
Last year, the idea gained momentum and the group began developing official drafts to make the path, the official Wabash River Trail (WRT), a reality.

Early on, the group received an anonymous donation, which helped fund the conceptual designs, surveying and other behind-the-scenes project necessities, according to Ford.

“It was a nice early belief that this is actually going to happen,” she said. “When you actually get money for a project then it’s all of a sudden like ‘Wow. Somebody else believes in this project too.’ It’s been very helpful to get a lot of work done before we actually took it to the project.”

The group began fundraising for the WRT Phase I’s costs of approximately $5 million on Monday, May 9.

By the end of the project, the Wabash River Trail Inc.’s goal is to raise enough money to “fund our operating budget so that we are able to hire somebody to help maintain the trail,” Ford said.

The construction drawing for the path through Lagro will go out to bid in July and the group plans to use as many local contractors as possible, according to Ford.

Phase I Sub-Phase I could potentially be finished within three months, she continued.

“The long-term vision is to broaden the trail, but right now our first phase is just east of Kerr Lock to the end of Basin Street,” she said. “That will start in August and that part has already been surveyed. We’re all set to go on there.”

The trail’s path
The WRT’s path will vary along the river, according to Ford.

“Depending on the area, it may determine if the trail stays on the north or if it switches over to the south side,” she explained.

However, the final 33-mile path designs are still not yet set in stone as the group is focusing on the trail through Lagro, she continued.

“If you start doing little segments everywhere, nothing comes together,” she said, “and our goal is to get this phase done and then people can actually see what it’s going to be and then quickly move either east or west.”

The WRT’s entire purpose is to connect communities.

“Trails is one of the top three things that people look for in a community when they are wanting to move to that community,” she explained. “Trails attract young, professional people and they also keep people in a community.

“So I can’t even begin to think what the economic impact that something like this would be for our community, to have a trail like this in our own backyard and along the river. … Just the whole recreational aspect of being on the river, seeing birds and water fowl, being able to fish, you can’t do that on a rails-to-trail as easily as you can a river trail.”

The 10-foot-wide paved path will also feature amenities such as trailheads, parking spaces, boat launch sites, directional signage and primitive camping.

Land acquisition
In March, Wabash River Trail Inc. received a corporate deed from Dillon’s Bar and Grill.

“The Wabash River Trail purchased that grassy plot behind the Lagro Café because that bar burnt down and there was nothing there,” Ford said. “So we purchased that and that may be part of a plan to put in a town plaza.

“So that is why we purchased that area so we could have a little control of what might go in there. Our thoughts would be to begin to create in that area a place for a public bathroom and the beginnings of a town square or plaza where they could have a farmer’s market, festivals, bands or some common area where people could come together.”

So far, the Wabash County community has responded positively to the WRT’s plans, according to Ford.

“The community is so excited,” she said. “I had people stopping in yesterday who were saying, ‘Just let us know what we can do. We are so excited for this.’”

The public is welcome to learn more about the WRT by visiting wabashrivertrail.org or attending project presentations, which will occur in upcoming months, according to Ford.

Future phases
While plans for the first phase have progressed, the group’s lack of information about the future phases has landowners, especially those between Wabash and Peru, concerned for several reasons.

“The information I have is what I read in the paper and rumors or tidbits that people have said,” Mike McKillip told The Paper of Wabash County. “But (WRT officials) have not tried to contact us.”

Other landowners -- including Gary Wilson, Jim Smith and Glenn Butcher – also report the same.

The McKillip family farm about 400 acres north of the Wabash River.

“Our biggest concern is we don’t know where for sure it’s going to go,” McKillip said, “but it’s probably going to be going across our property in front, where the old Interurban trail was, or in the back along the river.

“Our concern is liability on that farm down there.”

While they farm the land, none of the McKillips actually live on the property.

“That farm is always specialty crops such as tomatoes and seed corn,” McKillip said. “With the specialty crops, we’re spraying the tomato fields every seven days with pesticides, insecticides, fungicides. We’ve got irrigation stations there with high voltage electricity.”

McKillip and his brother, Craig, are concerned that riders, looking for nourishment, might pick a tomato out of the field and begin eating it.

“They take a bite of it maybe two hours after we sprayed the field, then they get sick,” Mike McKillip said. “Whose responsible for that? We can’t build a fence there to keep them out.

“Or what if a little kid runs over and puts his finger in an electric box? Kids do that; they’re enquiring. I don’t know where our liability would stand on something like that.”

Craig McKillip said there are other concerns as well.

“We’ve got heavy equipment,” he said. “They build a trail across there, and we’ve got to cross that trail. I’m assuming it’s going to be asphalt. It’s fine when you have that much asphalt to have a bicycle go down. But we’re going to cross it with 80,000 pound trucks.”

Other opponents
“Some people say it’s going north of the river, some say it’s going south,” said Jim Smith, who farms about 600 acres south of the Wabash River. “But … I’m against it. I don’t want somebody in my back yard.”

Like the McKillips, he too said the question of liability is one of his biggest concerns.

“We use farm chemicals,” Smith said. “I don’t want (bicyclists) in my fields, stopping along the trail, picking a vegetable and getting pesticides on them.”

He said he occasionally uses a crop duster to spray his fields. What would happen if that spray drifted and landed on someone using the trail, he pondered.

Smith tells a story about an incident that happened to a friend whose property abuts an existing bike trail.

A biker was riding by when the landowner’s dog began barking and running toward the rider. The dog never left the owner’s property, nor came in contact with the rider. But the dog spooked the rider, causing him to fall of his bicycle.

“He threatened to sue,” Smith said. “That’s what scares me. I don’t want that.

“What if my cows chase somebody? What if someone stops to pet a cow and the bull gets him down? Am I going to get sued because someone trespassed?”

Like others, Gary Wilson is concerned about the lack of information being released by the organizing committee.

“When you don’t know what’s coming at you …” he said. “I’m not completely against anything, but I’d sure like to have some information of some kind. How could they plan without contacting the landowners?”

Wilson farms between 500 and 600 acres, both north and south of the Wabash River from Richvalley to Wabash. Some of the land he farms he owns, and some of it is rented from other landowners.

“Some of the landowners that I farm for have called me and said, ‘Do you know anything about that?’” he continued.

Wilson said liability is also a concern of his.

“You could talk to any landowner, if you live in town or if you own property, if someone is putting some kind of thing going through your property, you’re concerned,” he said. “If it would stay along the river, I know that the river is a public entity, but I don’t know where the boundaries are.”

Bullets & arrows
Something that should be of concern to organizers, Smith believes, is a new law that allows high-powered rifles to be used while hunting deer.

“Not every shot hits its mark,” he noted.

Glenn Butcher and Tim Roberts both know about shooting along the Wabash River.

Butcher owns Bass & Bucks, which is a 157-acre facility south of the Wabash River that offers both indoor and outdoor archery and shooting areas.

He’s concerned that the trail will hurt, rather than help, the local economy.

Bass and Bucks, he said, hosts two shooting events annually that bring in hundreds of people and thousands of dollars to the local economy.

“Some of these people drive three and a half hour drives to get here,” he said. “They get motel rooms, they eat here, they buy gas.”

In addition, he said, the facility also hosts training for police and sheriff’s departments around the area, as well as serves as home for the Wabash County 4-H Shooting Club.

Roberts is the president of the Wabash Wildlife Club, which has a shooting range along the river off of Mill Street.

“We own the property between Mill Street and the river,” he said. “That club has been there since the 1950s. There’s been a shooting range there all that time. I don’t see how a trail on our side of the river would be compatible with people traveling along a river walk, walking along the river.

“I don’t see how it’s compatible because they would be directly down range; we shoot toward the river. We’ve got plenty of safety and backstop and so forth.

“There’s never been an accident at the club, and we don’t want one.”

Putting the trail south of the river also wouldn’t be acceptable, Roberts said.

“It could pose a problem,” he said. “I don’t think any of our bullets actually cross the river, but you still don’t want people anywhere down range of where you’re shooting. That’s one of our big safety issues.

“The river walk and our gun club, which has been there many, many years, really aren’t compatible.”

Funding questions
The question of compensation for landowners, as well as where the organization will get its money for building and maintaining the trail also were raised by some of the landowners.

“I don’t know where they are going to get their funding,” Mike McKillip said. “That’s going to be an expensive deal. There’s going to be several bridges that are going to have to be built to get from here to even our farm, to get to Peru.

“Those will be maintenance nightmares. Who’s going to repair all of them? Who’s going to do the upkeep? It’s just a terrible amount of expense for them. I don’t know who’s going to fund that.”

Craig McKillip added, “What’s the compensation going to be? They talk about we’re going to build this thing. They haven’t contacted us. What’s the compensation going to be? Who owns the right of way? I want to know.”

Wilson reflected back on the May 3 Primary Election in which the Wabash City Schools’ tax levy referendum was defeated by voters within the school district.

“I see in The Paper where the citizens of Wabash did not pass their referendum to educate their children,” he said. “To me, I’m not going to say it’s right or wrong. I like to see things done right. When you don’t even pass a small amount of tax to educate your children, but yet you’re going to spend some kind of money for recreation …?

“We have three reservoirs in the area. I think you can ride your bicycles there. Wabash City Park, to me … has been neglected. They’ve got the Y; they’ve got Paradise Spring and the Field of Dreams.

“Wabash City Park looks like an excellent place to me to put in bicycle trails. Maybe not miles and miles of them, but I’m really concerned that people start these projects and then throw something aside. The Wabash City Park is a perfect example.

“To me, you don’t see a lot of people around it any more. I hate to see them start one project and they neglect something else. My kids and my grandkids are the ones who will be supporting this or paying for it in the future.”

Information wanted
All the landowners were in agreement that they would like some information about the future plans for the trail.

“I’m probably not going to be for it,” Mike McKillip said, “but I think we’re owed that, to have someone come and explain their situation to us. What they’re trying to do; where they want to go.

“I’m probably not going to be for it, but if they get it to go everywhere but (our land), I suppose you’re at the mercy of doing it. I probably would be opposed to it anytime, but we’re owed a chance to voice our opinion and we should be knowledgeable of what they’re trying to do.”

Posted on 2016 May 31