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Court ruling won't derail Tweetsie Trail project

March 11th, 2014 9:57 pm by Tony Casey

Court ruling won't derail Tweetsie Trail project

If a U.S. Supreme Court decision to revert ownership of Rails-to-Trails property back to its original owners can’t stop Johnson City and Elizabethton’s Tweetsie Trail project, it’s unlikely anything can knock it off its tracks.

According to an official statement on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s website by Kevin Mills, the group’s senior vice president of policy and trail development, the court on Monday ruled 8-1 in the case of Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust et al v. United States, in which the Wyoming landowner, and other property owners across the country, would be given their original property after the cessation of the rights of railroads on those corridors.

The decision could affect hundreds of federally granted rights-of-way corridors and thousands of miles of recreational trails, but the 10-mile stretch between Alabama Street in Johnson City and past Snap On Tools in Elizabethton, called the Tweetsie Trail because of the former railroad line which used to travel through the area, would be untouched because of an agreement between Johnson City officials and the Surface Transportation Board. The court’s ruling was based on the rights granted in the 1875 General Railroad Right-of-Way Act.

Marianne Fowler, senior vice president for government relations for the RTC, and a Tennessee native, said she was looking forward to the Tweetsie Trail’s ribbon cutting on Labor Day this year. Fowler said she knows the trail had some bumps along the way but is happy to see things going so well now. She said some states are harder than others to see progress in the way of former railway recreational trails, and hopes to see that change.

“We don’t know the impact of the ruling yet,” Fowler said. “But we will prevail.”

Johnson City Assistant City Manager Charles Stahl said he’d received the notice from the RTC, but wasn’t concerned about the Tweetsie Trail because he, and others involved with the project at its inception about four years ago, worked with a Seattle attorney who’s specifically worked on Rails-to-Trails situations in past and lined things up so they wouldn’t have any issues in regard to property rights.

“Our rail corridor is protected under the law,” Stahl said, noting that they were cognizant of these possibilities at the beginning of the process using 16 U.S. Code § 1247 — State and local area recreation and historic trails, subsection d.

“This process allows the redevelopment for trail use,” Stahl said.

What that entails, Stahl said, was maintaining the surface and condition of the trail enough to, if needed, return it to use for the railroad lines. That would mean not making major alterations to the strength and integrity of the seven bridges on the recreational trail, as well as not making it impassable.

Many miles of other publicly accessible trails will be affected with this decision, and it could slow a movement that recently made way in giving transportation and recreational trails for skiing, snowmobiling, hiking, biking, walking, running and equestrian uses.

With the law on the side of the Tweetsie Trail, lots of progress has been made recently with the direction of the local Rails-to-Trails task force. Johnson City Public Works Director Phil Pindzola has had crews on the trail, clearing litter and debris, widening the trail for surfacing, which will include packed, crushed stone. Stahl, a member of the task force, is excited about the trail’s progress, and says teamwork with Elizabethton has made for smooth reconditioning of the recreational trail.

“There’s great excitement in turning this into a recreational trail,” Stahl said. “It’s an exciting project.”

As for other Rails-to-Trails projects across the country that will be affected by the Supreme Court decision, Mills said the they aren’t giving up just yet.

“The fight for these rail corridors is not over yet,” Mills said, expecting Brandt v. United States to be sent back to a lower court so there will be opportunity to clarify and limit the scope of the ruling.

For more information of the Tweetsie Trail, or to make a donation, go to www.tweetsietrail.com or find them on the project’s Facebook page.

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