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Trail Trouble
The Leelanau Trail

July 2 - July 10 - July 12 - July 12/#2 - July 19 - July 21 - July 26

The proposed Leelanau Trail would run from the southern edge of Leelanau County (Greilickville) to Suttons Bay on the old railbed, providing a path for pedestrians, bikers and other non-motorized transport. In the months since the trail was proposed, the issue has evolved into a very complex one. One the one hand is the Leelanau Trails Association (LTA), a non-profit organization which has purchased the old railbed with the intention of turning it into a trail. On the other hand, there is the Leelanau Property Owners Conservancy (LPOC), a group of landowners along the proposed trail. Somewhere in the middle (though not necessarily neutral) is the Leelanau County Government. These three entities have been waging an always changing battle in court and in Washington, the outcome of which is by no means clear.


This rail corridor began in the early 1890s as a section from Traverse City to Hatch's Crossing (near Bingham) owned by the Manistee & Northeastern Railroad (MNE). From there, the line extended to Cedar. Ten years later Perry Hannah's railroad, the Traverse City, Leelanau and Manistique extended the corridor from Hatch's Crossing north to Northport. In 1920, the section from Hatch's Crossing to Northport was purchased by the Leelanau Transit Company, a group comprised mostly of farmers. In 1955, the MNE merged with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. In 1981, The Leelanau Transit Co. sued the C & O for attempting to close their portion of the corridor. As part of their settlement, the Transit Co. was given the section from Hatch's Crossing to Rennie Station (on the southern side of Traverse City. In 1994, the RLTD Railroad Corporation was formed to administer the corridor and in the same year, RLTD sold the section from Dumas Road (north of Suttons Bay) to Northport to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. In March of 19955, RLTD, sold the section from Dumas Rd. to Rennie Station to the Leelanau Trails Association.

The County

Leelanau County Commissioner Leonard Olson explained the County Board's position:
"At our last County Board meeting we resolved to go before the state and federal agencies that are concerned to get a temporary injunction on the use of the corridor until we determine who owns it. It isn't that the county is against the trail, we just want to separate these two parties (the LTA and the LPOC). This has gotten pretty ugly--we don't want to see anyone get hurt. The only thing that makes sense have the courts make a decision."
Tom Aylsworth is Leelanau County's Prosecuting Attorney and has been directed by the County to take the above actions. As he explained:
"All I want to do is to save someone from getting hurt. To that end, I filed a complaint for injunctive relief on that portion of the trail where we have the most risk of serious harm before (Circuit Court) Judge Rogers last week. As a result of his ruling (that if the property was properly railbanked, then the zoning of Bingham Township would not apply to the corridor), the County Board has directed me to intervene at the state level to ask that no further improvements to the property be done until is status is clearly established."
Aylsworth did so, filing an injunction in 13th Circuit Court before Judge Phillip Rodgers. Judge Rodgers denied that motion on Monday, June 24th. The Judge also determined that until further action by the Surface Transportation Board (STB--formerly the Interstate Commerce Commission--the federal agency with jurisdiction over the rail corridor), that the RLTD and LTA had the right to make improvements and to use the trail.

The Leelanau Trail Association

Paul Bennington is the Executive Director of the Leelanau Trails Association and gave his observations on the situation:
"We just want to do with our land what is legally and lawfully allowed. We feel the zoning issue was resolved last Friday by the Circuit Court. Judge Rogers confirmed the LTA's long held opinion that the corridor is under Federal jurisdiction and that local zoning would not apply. The ruling did say that the township would still have regulatory powers to protect the public health and welfare. That's as it should be, and we don't want to do anything contrary to that.

"A whole other issue is the confrontations we've been having on the trail. On National Trails Day, June 1st, members of our organization took a publicly announced ride down the trail. We encountered fences erected illegally on the trail and upwards of 20 people descended on our group at the first barricade and proceeded to taunt the group. At each subsequent fence, the mob got bigger and angrier. One of our board members was punched in the back.

"We feel that the Prosecuter has abdicated his responsibility in this matter--the police don't know what to do and he won't instruct them. We have filed suit against 21 individuals, 17 for criminal trespass, and an order for quiet title (confirming that the trail is owned by the RLTD Railway Corporation). The County has retained the legal services of a Washington DC attorney, Nels Ackerman, to lobby the STB . We feel that's a waste of time and the County's money. We are also waiting for a ruling from the STB which should clear up a lot of things. Senator Abraham told us we would see that by the end of May. We're still waiting."

The Leelanau Property Owners Conservancy

The crux of the LPOC's position is that some portions of the railbed have already in fact been abandoned, and that under the original terms from the railroad, that land should revert to the adjacent property owners. On top of that, according to LPOC member Warren Raftshol:
"Our members don't believe that the LTA is willing to listen and talk. Some of our members attended their forum and didn't feel they had the opportunity to be heard. The LTA is asking us to give up something very valuable to us, our land, and not offering anything in return. They want to build a trail that 1,000 people a day can ride down, a "local transportation link", and we think that's too many. Basically, if it doesn't benefit everybody concerned, if adjacent homeowners can't enjoy the homes they've lived all their lives in, then this project shouldn't go ahead."
We will not try to pretend that this complex issue has been covered completely in this short piece. That would not be possible, likely not in one ten times the length. What we will say, is that we hope that this can be the beginning point for a discussion, on and off-line, on this divisive issue.

In a final comment, one original member of the LPOC had this to say:

"It's become all black and white...there's no longer any shades of gray...and no talking"

July 2, 1996
We love vacationing in northwest Michigan, but if we were the land owners, we wouldn't want the trail either.
--Mr Wayne K. Vanderploeg

July 10, 1996
I can see the exciting possibilities of having a pristine trail for bikers, hikers and others in Leelanau County. In England, many farms have public trails criss-crossing the countryside. Unfortunately, this trail proposed would criss-cross county roads; and in some cases, very dangerous curves where traffic fatalities have taken place. Careful study should be made to determine whether a trail of this sort should cross any road, period. I suspect one reason the railroad sold the property rights was due to the excessive liability that these intersections might cause.
--Jim Rink

July 12, 1996
I am not a resident of your area (though I wish I was!!), but I feel the need to share something. I have a young son and often take him riding with me in a carry-along. Every time that I do, I am so consumed by fear for his safety that it almost completely spoils the pleasure of a bike ride. The cars drive so fast and treat me as if I am intruding on their "turf", which I, in fact am doing. Cars and bikes can't share the same area. Cars are large, heavy and very fast moving and if one moving at highway speeds hits a bicycle, the result is usually serious injury or death. This is to say nothing of the noise and fumes of automobiles.

I do not want that to happen to my son, or to anyone for that matter.

I am asking a question and making a plea.

My question: Where would you have us go?

Should we share the road with cars, hoping that we will not be the victim of a careless or inattentive driver? Should we ride on a paved shoulder, breathing carbon monoxide and other exhaust and trying to dodge broken glass and pieces of debris? Or should we just stay at home?

I don't want to stay at home, and though my suburban neighborhood has no trails or the likelihood of any in the near future, it would be nice to think that, somewhere, the people and government have made a place for vehicles other than the automobile. My plea:

Work together. Please. Somehow make a place in your hearts and county and world for a form of transport that is healthy and non-polluting.

Thank You,
--Becky Hale

July 12, 1996
I am replying to the thoughtful comment by Becky Hale who posted in support of the proposed Leelanau Trail.

I do agree with you that it would be nice if the powers that be made more provisions for bicycle transport. Perhaps local planning commisions could propose ordinances to the effect that any new subdivisions in a municipality or township should be required to provide these types of facilities. There would probably be a lot of support for this type of action.

The problem, as I see it, with the proposed Leelanau Trail is that it is being designed after the fact, ie., after the farms and residences have grown up along a railroad. I believe the anticipated use of possibly 1000 riders per day would cause the adjacent owners to lose the enjoyment of their homes and property.

Leelanau County is under great development pressures now. Almost all the larger land owners along the line could, at any time, sell their land to developers for subdivision development. The rest of us hope that doesn't happen, but if owning and farming land gets to be too big a hassle, these folks are likely to take the money and run. Eventually, all the land along the line could turn into a continous suburbia, and Leelanau county would lose the rural charm that suburbanites such as yourself up here for vacations.

--Warren Raftshol

July 19, 1996
The essence of this entire discussion seems to be that of property rights. Keeping that in mind, it behooves the participants to adhere strictly to the letter and spirit of property law as administered in a free market society. Prior to the LTA's ownership of the trail region, a regular rail-line occupied that space. This line has been used on-and-off from its creation, til the LTA's recent conversion, as a means of transit for locomotives. Property law aside, for the moment, doesn't a several hundred tonne smoke belching locomotive travelling at full speed pose a greater risk to public safety and aesthetic than foot and bicycle traffic? Someone within recent history even lost their life due to inadequate safety measures. I seriously doubt the possibility of a pedestrian or bicyclist moving at full speed could fatally injure a fellow pedestrian or bicyclist from impact alone. Returning to the salient issue, that of property rights, it is a matter of record that the trail property in question has been exchanged through the same legal free market process by which the landowners adjacent to the trail purchased their own property. This process cannot be questioned without equally questioning the rights of adjacent landowners. As such, any legal action taken which questions this exchange is essentially a Luddite reaction after the fact and espouses a communistic economic approach to land rights (ie, state control of people's property -- something which died with the Soviet Union). Needless to say, this feeble attempt to wrest control from the lawful owners and right-holders was dismissed by the judge in question -- it almost reassures one's faith in our legal system. Unless the intention of the LPOC is to destroy land rights as the modern world understands them, there should not be an issue.
--Jonathan T. Beard

July 21, 1996
In response to Jonathan Beard's comment, I would like to say that the LPOC is not confused about property rights. Any confusion there is in this rail trail issue was caused by the state legislature in 1968 with the passage of P.A. 13, which purported to withdraw the reversionary rights of certain property owners.

As you know, Mr. Beard, both the state and federal constitution prohibit the legislature from making any laws impairing the obligation of contracts. We believe the state supreme court will ultimately reach this conclusion.

--Judy Belanger,
President, LPOC

From personal experience trailfront property does increase in house is on a trail and property value jumped at least 30K. What I mean is: can't you work out something so that you and the rest of MICHIGAN will be happy? Not after the trail is on, but before.

Gee, cops drive by your house, right? Does that mean you are a criminal? NO! I work in law enforcement and can say that if there were 1000 people on the trail, the crazies would not be out. Criminals don't like crowds, they like to be alone. Trust me, I think I know a BIT more than you do about criminals - I've been arresting them for years. A nice deserted area is what criminals look for. And yes, considering I and my friends are cops, we are law abiding citizens.

I guess people in SE Michigan have a different philosophy - we built our trail in 1983 and we all worked together - owners and the govt. The trail is a wonderful thing and living on it is great.

Well, listen - I only wanted to get you to think about the trail in a different way - you are obviously set in your ways, which I feel is truly sad. We have a unique opportunity to create a world class trail system for generations to come, I just wish you could see that.

Take Care,
July 27, 1996
Response to Prizon--Sorry I don't know your first name. Your trail was put in 1983 before the federal rails to trails act allowed agencies and privates to steal the rights of way without compensation through this interim trail scam.

If you are on the Rochester to Orion Township trail, you have problems. I have seen at least two write-ups in national media about problems on that trail. The main one being no sanitary facilities along the trail except private businesss' facilities. That is not good stewardship. The four government entities who control the trail are passing the buck on who should finance the sanitary facilities. BUT, what happens is that the businesses have to suffer the consequences of the governments financial shortfall to build a good trail with correct facilities. This happens all the time and corresponds to your previous comment that we should all work together for the common good. You wonder why property owners don't want to "work" with the government agencies? BECAUSE they end up with all the problems that are never settled. Once a tail is in; there is no turning back the clock.

Consequently, no trail.

I happen to know considerable about law enforcement and trails. I have a 785 page collection of trail problems on rail trails assembled from media articles and verified personal experiences of abutting property owners along established trails. All of these collected from post 1991. They document at least 12 murders, 15 rapes and numerous vandalisms and other crimes; not to mention the privacy issue. These crimes probably would not have happened BUT for the trail and these trails are hidden from law enforcement possibilities. How about the 20/20 program of a few years back that had the San Diego police chief and others say that the most unsafe place to have a home was next to a park. For your information, trails are parks; probably worse than non-linear parks because they are so remote to law enforcement.

Remember-just because you like trails that does not mean we all should like trails next to us. How would you like the federal government to pass a law that said that abandoned roads are now going to be made into interim airports until such time we need that road for road use. Now this abandoned road runs 50 feet from your from or back door. Besides that, all roads except interstates are on easement for road purposes only, BUT the feds preempt your state property law on road easement reversion. How do you like that and all those airplanes flying next to your home day and night? How do you suppose the abutting property owners enjoy snow machine racing next to their bedroom window at all hours of the night? Probably about as much as you would like those airplanes taking off.

You did not respond to the basic property right issue that is involved in the rails to trails scam. They are stealing tens of thousands of property owners land and property rights. You especially, as a law enforcement officer, should be cognizant of peoples rights. Don't forget, all rights of our constitution should have the same effect,and that is to preserve our liberty. If you fudge on one, who is to say when the next one is fudged on.

As a law enforcement officer, you swear to uphold the federal and state of Michigan constitution, but you are willing to look the other way on property rights of citizens. Are you one of these policemen like we read about in New York that make up your own laws to suit yourselves?

In response to the Prizon message--1000 trail users a day is not unrealistic during the summer when lots of trail crazies are out on the prowl. What with rollerbladers, bikers, racers, dogs, cats, babies, parents and strollers, weirdos, preverts, criminals, 1000 a day is an easy number to come by. BUT-it takes only one person with bad ideas to ruin a family or property. That one person would not have been there but for the trail. So why give these criminals and preverts the place to do their thing. Leave them on the streets, not in someone's backyard.

Prizon talks about having to have horse patrols on his trail. Why do they need horse patrols if all his trail buddies are so law abiding?

Prizon says there are solutions to all these problems. Why make the problem in the first place? What Prizon means is build the trail and we'll worry about it later. Of course the problems just keep getting put aside and subsequently, the problems get more immense. But no one cares about the property owners problems.

Let's put this notion that property values go up because there is a trail.

B.S. All the studies say the property values go up NEAR the trail. They never say the values go up on properties bordering the trail. A study done in Seattle after 10 years of trail use showed the actual assessed value of all properties bordering the Burke-Gilman trail only rose 36 percent in 10 years when the rest of the surrounding properties rose 208 percent in those ten years. The rest of the properties in the whole county went up 146 percent in those ten years. But, here we have 310 homes bordering the trail and they went up only 36 percent. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that trails are bad for property values.

Prizon, we have worked out something that makes all rational people happy-- do not build the trail. Easy answer. You then can recreate on your own

property or go to a state park.
--Dick Welsh

If you have a response that you would like to post to the Forum, please do so--the whole idea behind The Forum is to encourage discussion on this and other controversial issues in northern Michigan. E-mail your submission to the The Forum -- Include "the Forum" in your subject. Submissions will be posted in the order received. Entries will not be edited without the consent of the author and the Northern Michigan Journal assumes no liability for the views, comments or assertations of those who post to the Forum.

Some Rails & Trails Links:
  • The National Association of Reversionary Property Owners (NARPO)
    Good links and discussions of issues relating to property ownership along rail corridors.
  • If you have an issue you would like to see addressed in The Forum, please send us a message, including "The Forum"; in the subject.

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