Rail trail closed to the public; but is it?

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MANCHESTER — A hand-written sign on a chalkboard spurred debate over a local privately owned rail trail that is popular with walkers and bicyclists, and the status of the trail is in some question.

The sign, written in chalk, said that the path was "closed to the public per the Town of Manchester."

The trail, known as the rail trail that is the privately owned former rail bed, runs from near Riley Rink at Hunter Park to North Road. It has been under constant improvement and is used by walkers, joggers, bicyclists and others.

The group of owners have been improving it with the hope that the town of Manchester will take over the trail as a town recreation option.

The plan is to connect the trail to an existing trail that runs from MEMS to the Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park and on to Riley Rink at Hunter Park.

From there, there is a short section near a gravel pit where the two trails do not connect, but the owners say they have arranged permission to continue the trail across that land.

APPLICATION PULLED

The confusion over the trail began in early August when it was announced at a Development Review Board meeting that a permit application for public use of the trail had been withdrawn.

It's that missing connection that caused the town to encourage the owners to withdraw the permit application. There was no permission for that connector piece between the existing trail and planned trail in the application and if the Development Review Board had approved the plan, it would be encouraging people to trespass onto another person's land, Hurley said, and the application was unlikely to be approved without it.

"If the DRB would have issued a permit for that, they would have been encouraging trespassing on the Dailey Pit property," Hurley said. "The gravel pit owners haven't given permission for the public to go back and forth on that trail."

Hurley said there may be an agreement with the landowners, but that doesn't equate to legal permission for the application.

By withdrawing the permit, Janet Hurley, Manchester's director of Zoning and Planning, was able to issue an administrative permit for work that should have been permitted before it was done.

Hurley said the landowners should have obtained permits for work they've performed on the trail including building two bridges, installing a culvert and building a parking area near North Road.

Hurley originally told them they needed to apply for permits for the work, which they did, but then the town decided the best way to get the project back on track would be to issue an after-the-fact permit because the work is now completed.

When the application was pulled at the DRB meeting, it was pointed out that the property should be declared closed to the public and signs should be erected.

A 'SIGN' IS ERECTED

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Recently, the chalkboard sign showed up on the trail a little ways up the trail from the North Road entrance near the property of a local resident whose property abuts the trail and isn't happy about the noise, trash and lost privacy she says has come with the trail use.

Kristi Marcus said she put the sign up because nobody else did following the DRB meeting.

The sign, she said, was placed on her property beside the trail.

Marcus has long opposed the trail, which runs behind her house and separates her home from a field where she has horses. She said she recently found some trash in her field that if her horses had eaten could have made them sick. Her list of grievances is long and Marcus said she represents neighbors in the area who have asked her to speak for them in opposition to the trail.

After the DRB meeting, when she heard that the trail was to be closed to the public and signs should go up, nothing happened, she said.

"Nobody did anything," Marcus said. "That's why I put my sign out there. No one else was letting the general public know."

Marcus said she talked to people about it and nobody knew the trail was supposed to be closed.

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So she posted her sign and the issue became a hot topic on the Northshire Community Forum on Facebook.

PERMIT ISSUED

With the DRB application out of the way, Hurley issued the after-the-fact permit Tuesday morning, but the permit comes with conditions.

In a letter addressed to Bill Drunsic, one of the owners of the property, which is known by the legal name of Old Railroad Bed, LLC, Hurley said the owners would need to abide by conditions, including the closure of the trail.

"Accordingly, please post the property as "private property not for public use" at all four entry points as soon as possible," Hurley wrote.

The permit also calls for road access permits for the two town roads from which the trail can be accessed, and the trail must post its E911 address, which Hurley issued is now 1451 North Road in case emergency personnel have to respond to the trail.The permit was issued Aug. 18, but is not effective until Sept. 2, because "any interested person" can appeal the permit to the Development Review Board within 15 days.

REALLY CLOSED?

Despite the "not for public use," declaration, the owners aren't buying that they can't let people use their trail.

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"The reality is, we can give permission to anybody we want to use the trail," said Robin Verner, another of the property owners. "It's our property. We don't plan on changing anything."

Robin and his wife, Amy, say there was a public trail process, but they withdrew that and it's now private property and they contend they can allow people to walk or ride bikes on their private property.

But the end goal remains to get the trail into the public's hands as a town asset, and the Verners say that's the focus.

"We're trying to make it simple," Robin Verner said. "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel."

Hurley and Town Manager John O'Keefe both said the town is kind of caught in the middle. They want to see the trail become a public trail owned by the town someday, if that's what town voters approve. But getting there has been a little messy.

"We all want the same thing," Hurley said. "We want there to be this public amenity, but despite the good motives, but they have put the town in a difficult position by getting people to use it. We're going to continue to get daily complaints about this. From a planning perspective, it put a little kink in the process of making this a public amenity."

As for restricting access to the trail, O'Keefe said he thinks it's going to be hard to enforce.

He compared it to the closing of the Rec Park during the COVID-19 lock-down when the governor required that all public parks be closed.

O'Keefe said that despite signs, tape, barricades and many other obstacles, they had to chase people out of the park nearly every day, something he said the town won't be doing for a private trail.

THE FUTURE

O'Keefe said the trail, which went through a scoping study a year ago, has been accepted by the state, which makes it eligible for grant awards.

"There's a grant application due at the end of September for the next round of bike-pedestrian funding," O'Keefe said.

O'Keefe said the trail has been overwhelmingly popular among town voters although there are pockets of resistance among local neighbors and others who don't think it's a good use of money.

"We are working on a model that may come before the public to consider public ownership," O'Keefe said.

Contact Darren Marcy at dmarcy@manchesterjournal.com or by cell at 802-681-6534.


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