Commission Chairman Bob Hein said, “I think the people have spoken. Let’s speak to Susan (Robson, county attorney), and make sure we put this to bed.”
With that, the commissioners voted 3-0 to ask Robson to report back in 30 days to what extent the county is able to do under state and federal regulations to close the issue of rails to trails.
Angy Jost of Hillsboro, a spokeswoman for the CAMM group, said its members have no problem with the realization that under federal law the railroad has the right to come back in, reinstall tracks, and begin service again. She said that if it was a benefit to the county, the group would have no problem with a rails to trail effort to build tourism and jobs.
But, she and her husband, Kevin, and other members repeated several times, the Central Kansas Conservancy that has received the federal leasehold has not been responsible. She said landowners have been paying the taxes on the railroad right-of-way land, and it has only been through pursuing CKC through the courts that the CKC has done anything for taking liability insurance on the ground.
CAMM members at the meeting said everything from weeds—including legally noxious weed musk thistle—to trees have become problems on the trail that have not been dealt with.
Sheriff Lee Becker verified reports of horses falling into a sinkhole on the right-of-way that had to be lifted out with a wrecker to avoid breaking their legs.
“What if that had been a vehicle or even a child?” he asked.
Becker said his department generally has sided with the landowners in any potential legal confrontations because “they are the ones paying taxes on it.”
Charles Wiebe said that he owned the land adjacent to where the horses went in the hole and he had it filled at his own expense to avoid liability.
Wiebe criticized County Economic Director Teresa Huffman for seeking permission from the commissioners to pursue development of the trail with CKC and with appearing to side with CKC at county expense.
Huffman said she was trying to do what appeared best for furthering tourist and recreational efforts in the county. She said that when she researched it, CKC is listed with the state as the leaseholder of the trail.
“I started looking into it when it was brought to my attention,” Huffman said. “I have been talking to Angy on the phone and by e-mail. I have not tried to be one-sided.”
Kevin Jost said the issue with CKC has gone on for 12 years, and the group has never taken responisbility for anything on the trail unless legally forced to do so. Even though trail administration begins with federal law, he said the commissioners have the power to make higher officials take heed of county opinion.
The group turned over a large file of legal papers to the commissioners, including state attorney general opinions, to solidify their point.
Kevin Jost said there have been confrontations where fences put up by farmers have been cut by CKC representatives.
Angy Jost said the group at the Commission meeting represented 20,000 acres of Marion County land ownership. She and others called for refunds of years of taxes on railroad right-of-way if the Commission did nothing.
“This is our business and our life,” she said. “If this isn’t resolved, and some kind of liability happens, and the CKC isn’t responsive, we will come back to the county for resolution.”
Commissioner Randy Dallke said he had been unaware of the extent of the rails to trail issue, but he would support the landowners.
The commissioners said the issue in rural areas shouldn’t affect trail development in cities.
In other actions, Hein announced that Gayla Ratzlaff of Hillsboro has been appointed head of the elderly department at a salary of $2,550 a month.
Commissioner Dan Holub announced that investors Mr. and Mrs. Jim Whitfill have dropped plans for operating a cafe, boat rentals and building cabins for rent at Marion County Lake. He said the Whitfills felt that it wouldn’t work to invest $30,000 to $50,000 after it was discovered they would have to lease the south half of the lake hall for the cafe on an annual basis.
The level of public opposition also was a factor, Holub said.
Holub said he will still seek a developer for cabins at the lake. He said he is disturbed by the lack of opportunity, potential revenue and tax relief the development would have added. Along with this, Holub said he is disturbed by the inability of Marion County citizens to accept compromises for the common benefit.
“It seems like if something is started, everybody wants to step in to murder it,” he said.
Holub cited Marion County’s campaign in recent years to turn away a landfill that he said would have done away with the county-wide solid waste fee.
“Harper County is getting $2 million annual income for the landfill which could have been here,” Holub said.
He said the casino issue was another opportunity lost for Marion County. He understood the moral issues on the casino, he said, but he couldn’t understand devious methods “to kill it,” and the failure to follow through on what opponents called economic alternatives.
Then, he said, the commissioners have tried to have public dialogue to work out how to do an income-producing jail to save “millions in taxes,” and the input they are getting is only “don’t raise my taxes to do anything.”
Yet, he said, he sees some of the same people willing to pay taxes for new athletic fields. He described some of the opposition as “just hateful.”
When it comes to the cabins, Holub said he thought it was “a no brainer” the amount of good they could have done for the county.
“We need places to stay for people,” he said. “We need things to do for our young people.”
The commissioners approved re-zoning land owned by the Barkman family at 1362 U.S. Highway 56 from rural residential to commercial.
The commissioners discussed beginning development of new building codes for the county. Holub called them a matter of safety, and suggested bringing contractors into discussion to develop them.
“What’s the use of talking about setting new codes if we can’t afford them,” Dallke said.
Appraiser Cindy Magill said 213 appeal hearings are set on new property tax valuations. She said the public still has two weeks to arrange appeals.
Dallke questioned whether sales data should be the ultimate factor in setting home valuations if not all factors such as repossession sales are included.
Magill said valuations are done according to state rules, and she hopes that home owners will come in to discuss valuations if they want to instead of getting “worked up and upset.”
The commissioners said they are getting calls from upset constituents.
The commissioners discussed new state required technology, CAMA, that they said is proving unaffordable in big counties like Johnson and Sedgwick. The commissioners said a poorer rural county like Marion should delay the technology as long as possible to allow the bugs to be worked out in the larger counties.
Peggy Blackman, administrator for the WRAPS program at Marion Reservoir, outlined disposition of the county’s $72,500 contribution for testing aimed at improving water quality while extending the life of the reservoir.
Grass planting and conservation programs are gradually reducing the sediment load coming into the reservoir, she said.
Under a program to remove rough fish from the reservoir that churn up sediment that increases nutrients for algae growth in the lake, she said a commercial fisherman who pays for the fish has been allowed to remove 20,000 pounds of buffalo fish for human consumption. The fish have weighed up to 40 pounds each, she said.
Blackman said carp also will be removed from the reservoir for the same reasons, but since they are undesirable for commercial purposes, they will be buried in a mass pit at the reservoir. She said interest in them for fertilizer on fields isn’t tenable because of health regulations.
Holub said counties like Marion need more state help on reservoirs because Marion County is trying to take care of the reservoir problem while counties above the reservoir are dumping into it, and counties below Marion are benefitting from the cleanup. He said it isn’t fair for this county to shoulder such a disproportionate load.
Strait also discussed purchasing a type of spectrometer instrument with future grant money for checking blue-green algae toxicity level at Marion Reservoir.
She said the instrument could give immediate testing to enhance public safety instead of waiting for reports to come back from a lab. Suspending it from a 25-foot cable would give her the capability of testing right at water inlets for Hillsboro and Marion, she said.