The Ottumwa Courier

June 14, 2013

The path of least resistance

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Please stop worrying: The yellow line on a map cutting through private property is not set in stone. In fact, the line will most likely look much different a year from now.

Trail planners at the local level met this week in Ottumwa with landowners to get their input and to assure them that the "plans" are more of a tentative idea.

"I know Ottumwa, Eldon and Fairfield want a trail system ... to connect, but how that happens, I don't know," said Brian Leaders, a National Park Service representative visiting Ottumwa recently.

Because three communities are working together to do something positive for residents and the environment, the U.S. Parks Service offered its services at no charge to the combined Gothic Regional Trails Council.

Hopeful trail builders like Kim Hellige of Ottumwa wanted to get an idea of where there would be landowners who were welcoming and where trail builders would not be welcome. That way, if necessary, the tentative plan could be rerouted. There are already homeowners on board, trail officials said, but not many of the attendees at the Ottumwa meeting appeared enthusiastic about the trail.

One meeting participant did not realize the plan was tentative and criticized trail builders for not having a "Plan B." One man said he wouldn't be the first to sign up — but he wasn't saying "no," either.

Another homeowner was more adamant. She said she felt that a trail would interfere with a farming way of life.

"You said you wanted us to be honest? We don't want it. You're asking too much ... Go somewhere else," said the woman.

But that's OK, said Leaders. There are going to be landowners who would love to support the idea of having a trail system near their home and others who are against having trails going through their property. One Eldon area resident was concerned criminals could hike the trail during the day, then come back at night and steal things from farms. And what about lawsuits, asked one man, concerned that if someone was injured on his property, he'd get sued.

Organizers answered questions and concerns one at a time, saying, for example, there is a "Plan B," but it's hard to say there's really even a "plan A" yet, or that a law shields homeowners who are kind enough to open their land from being sued.

Other area residents provided information as sources who new the area best: There's an abandoned coal mine along the hypothetical trail, there's a place where the river is eroding the bank and there are places people use to hunt on their own land.

All of that is good information, said the National Parks Service representative. But even those who came to the meeting dead set against a trail in their backyard were helping the planners. By coming to the meeting and speaking up, the map can be re-examined to go along the path of least resistance.

He and Helige said no one would be forced to agree. There's no "eminent domain" law that requires people to allow a trail to go through land they own. And the people of the committee, said Hellige later, wouldn't use a law to force compliance anyway. They want participation from people who want to see the trail go from Ottumwa to Eldon to Fairfield.

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark.