Supporters, dissenters rail about trails to commissioners

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
After months of silence, during which Marion County commissioners had hoped matters were being resolved, landowners and trail supporters contesting use of the abandoned rail line from Marion to McPherson once again brought conflicting viewpoints to Monday’s meeting.

Sheriff Lee Becker, who at times seemed to help phrase questions to keep the discussion civil, said he and his officers have been working along the proposed trail to maintain peace, although they also tell citizens they aren’t attorneys there to set rules.

Stan Thiessen represented Central Kansas Conservancy, which appears to have won ownership of the trail right-of-way barring its return to railroad use. Thiessen said members doing cleanup and mowing work on the trail have been verbally abused and threatened by landowners.

Ron Bartel and Kevin Jost, both of Hillsboro, represented the Citizens’ Association of Marion and McPherson Counties (CAMM), which has represented landowners’ rights in ownership contentions and protection of property against incursions under state law.

Bartel noted that CKC was supposed to have a plan five years ago for trail development for the 33 miles of abandoned railroad for every city and county affected, and that county commissioners have received nothing. He said CKC has not put up a bond for fencing to share building fences with landowners, and is in danger of encroaching on private property.

Bartel and Jost personally wanted woven wire fences with barb wire tops that would be both “cattle and dog-tight,” although they said persons in towns may want privacy fences or chain link.

Jost said landowners contend with the fact that natural features on their land, such as ponds and potential hiking areas, are “attractive nuisances” that make it necessary for them to have good liability insurance. He wondered what provisions for liability protection CKC has.

Bartel said CKC volunteers doing cleanup on the right-of-way have interfered with his own intent to fence around it for moving cattle.

Jost said: “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of support for the trail. Good wishes and a couple of workers doesn’t get the job done to cover 33 miles. They seem to have enough money just to make a mess and then dump the finances on the taxpayers of the cities, counties and state. Hillsboro and Lehigh have said they aren’t going to support it.”

Commission Chairman Bob Hein told Jost and Bartel that County Attorney Susan Robson would be visiting with them about their concerns.

Thiessen said he was doubtful of trail benefits at first but came to realize it is important for recreation, historical preservation and economic development.

The rail trail is one of the few public-park areas left that will have access to the junction of the Santa Fe Trail and the Chisholm Trail, which is currently being posted with historic signs from Texas to Abilene, he said.

Thiessen said the trail will bring money for economic development to Marion County just like other attractions.

He said the trail fits the development strategies adapted by all cities in the county, including the linear park proposed at Hillsboro. He contended that hundreds of miles of abandoned railways in other areas remain vacant because farmers don’t find the ground suitable for agricultural activity.

Thiessen said trail access for CKC workers shouldn’t be questioned because CKC ownership has been recognized by federal decree through the Surface Transport Board and by county assessment of property taxes.

Commissioner Leroy Wetta asked if the right-of-way could be reclaimed by the railroads at any time.

Ronn Peters, who also was at the meeting for CKC, said railroads could claim the trail back because federal policy recognizes that transportation could take unanticipated changes in the future. For instance, when President Eisenhower chose to support the subsidized interstate highway system as a national defense measure in the 1950s, he couldn’t have foreseen the use 18-wheelers would make of them to compete with railroads, he said.

Thiessen said: “We are not into confrontations. That’s not what it’s about. We need to resolve conflicts, so we have access to what is rightfully ours.”

Commissioner Howard Collett said the county will need to ask for plans and fencing in consultation with Robson.

In other matters, Collett moved to join the City of Marion in seeking a Kansas Department of Transportation grant for improvement of Eisenhower Street, and Hein joined him to vote 2-1 over Wetta’s negative vote.

Collett’s motion left it open to future commissions whether to proceed with acceptance of the grant that could require a 25 percent $84,000 share from the county.

Wetta objected to the potential expense.

City Administrator Dennis Nichols said Marion is adding annually to its capital outlay for the project, which should take place by 2006. The city portion of Eisenhower from Main to Kellison would be resurfaced with curbs and storm gutters added while the county portion to U.S. Highway 56 would only be widened and resurfaced.

Marty Fredrickson, Marion street superintendent, said Eisenhower is subject to edges dropping off as a major market road route that needs widening for carrying trucks, car traffic and emergency vehicles.

Susan Cooper, city development director, said the city sees the project as a needed safety improvement, too.

Hein noted the county will need to widen its portion by 8 feet to meet the city width of 30 feet, which goes to 35 feet with curb and gutter.

Collett said he wondered where the county could get the additional 8 feet needed whether from current available width, by purchasing it, or by donation from a landowner.

Nichols said he thought landowners might donate the extra road width necessary for the county in the interest of developing Marion.

“If Marion grows and improves, it helps the whole county out, too,” he said.

Cooper said timing is right to invest for the future with the street, and that it could be important for the Kansas Department of Transportation to see city/county joint effort.

Collett said the amount of money required could affect the Road and Bridge Department budget severely.

Nichols said: “We don’t want you to feel that it’s an iron-clad decision. What you will do may depend on how the bids come in at the time.”

Dan Crumrine and Frances Smalley of Improvement District No. 2 at Marion County Lake came with Dale Snelling, park director, to explain raises in water and sewer rates to the county in the face of a 48.2 percent water-rate increase from the city of Marion.

They said the county has not changed its charges since the beginning 1995 rate of $650 a month for up to 65,000 gallons, with an additional $1.98 per 1,000 gallons for amounts above that.

The new charge will be for an increased usage rate at $850 per month for 85,000 gallons and $3.25 for each 1,000 gallons above that.

Crumrine and Smalley said the last sewer-rate increase for the county’s 66 hookups at Marion County Lake was from $12 to $14 per hookup three years ago, and now the rate is going to $16.

Crumrine said the district could face problems because, although money for replacing equipment is set aside from fees collected, costs for sewer pumps, as an example, have increased from $500 to $1,500 since the district began.

Snelling said fees to pay the utility charges are collected from trailer rental and camper fees. He said the county used 61,300 gallons of water in May, 70,400 gallons in June and 105,100 gallons in July.

Commissioners approved a low bid of $11,448.51 from APAC of Salina for resurfacing the parking lot at the south end of the courthouse adjacent to the new Library Street between the county grounds and the city’s library/depot project.

County Clerk Carol Maggard told commissioners that the Kansas Secretary of State’s office is periodically discussing requiring electronic voting equipment.

Maggard said scanning equipment helps reduce labor at Marion County polling sites, but switching to electronics could be a financial hardship to small counties, plus it could reduce the number of polling places. She said from 20 to 25 counties in Kansas still use paper ballots.

The commissioners reappointed Brad Bartel to a three-year term on the board of Northview Developmental Services, based in Newton.

After visiting with Steven Garrett, chair of the Marion County Economic Development Council, commissioners voted 3-0 to allocate $3,500-the same as last year-for the Labor Day fireworks display at Marion County Lake.

Bill Smithhart, household hazardous-waste director, told commissioners that 551 pounds of waste were collected July 20 from 10 participants at Goessel. The waste ranged from aerosol cans to batteries and oil.

Noreen Weems, director of the department for the elderly, reported that the county board nominated Edwin Winter of Durham as “Hero of the Heartland” for the North-Central/Flint Hills Area Agency’s Aging Senior Services Fair planned for Sept. 17 in Salina.

She said Winter has been a life-long volunteer and advocate for senior affairs.

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