A Closer Look: The Huron River Greenway Battle - Nov. 2011
By Pete Medek with Steven Myers
In September it was reported that the 15-year feud between Erie MetroParks and affected landowners along the Huron River Greenway had come to an end.
The trail manager, Erie MetroParks, had thrown in the towel and agreed to pay the landowners $1.935M. As part of the settlement, part of the existing greenway would be closed. (Read the full article.)
We're taking a closer look at this long-running dispute. Hopefully we can learn some lessons from a battle that strained the relationship between a local parks board and its residents and siphoned off local taxpayer money in legal fees and settlement costs.
I contacted Steven Myers, who had been involved with the trail project and had managed a website about the trail.
Ohio Bikeways: Thanks for joining us, Steven. Can you tell us how you became involved with the trail project and the role you played?
Steven Myers: In 1988, when I had first learned about rail trails, I wrote a letter to the then-director of Erie MetroParks and told him that the railroad track between Huron and Milan would be abandoned before long, and that it would make an excellent trail.
In 1991 I obtained permission from the railroad to walk the right-of-way and invited the director, someone from Rails-To-Trails Conservancy and the public to walk the right-of-way on April of 1991.
This might have been my first mistake, going public too soon. When I made a presentation before the park board later that year; the meeting was filled with angry property owners. This was at a point when nothing but a walk of the right-of-way had taken place.
The same thing happened when I called a meeting to form what became the non-profit Huron River Greenway Coalition in 1992; angry property owners outnumbered those interested and literally shouted most supporters out of the room.
Fortunately, I gained the support of Jody Lee Ritter who encouraged me to continue my efforts and we formed the Coalition. We continued to work in public and private and, in 1994, the Erie MetroParks Board of Park Commissioners adopted the project. While we were in their corner, they did most of the fighting.
OB: I can appreciate that in hindsight you feel the concept was taken public too soon. But at some point it does need to be presented to locals for their input.
Generally speaking, trail projects are developed in communities that embrace the concept. That's not to say that literally everyone is on board. But by your description of those early meetings, it sounds as if locals were more opposed to the trail than in favor. If that was the case, why did you continue to pursue this project?
Myers: I was convinced this project had merit and felt that if I put the right information out there, that it would gain support, not only among the public but among the adjacent property owners.
We quickly got over 100 members in the Coalition from our membership brochures and publicity. In surveys; at least one commissioned by the park district and another conducted by a university, trails in general and the Greenway in particular were supported by large margins.
OB: Tell us more about the land dispute and why the park district gave the green light to this trail project.
Myers: I thought the most important property owner to deal with was the railroad that owned the corridor. So did the park district who received a quit-claim deed from the railroad for land supposedly not part of the Canal lease.
However, many of the adjacent property owners were of the belief that it became their property as soon as the trains stopped running. Both the park district and I could not find any evidence that the railroad signed over property to any more than one or two property owners.
Initially, the park district was winning in the courts. I don't know when it turned, or how it turned, but the opponents finally came up with a winning argument. Once they got the courts on their side, they could ratchet up the battle as much as they needed to.
OB: How many times did this go to court?
Myers: I have copies of 7 state court cases and their associated appeals in a folder in front of me. Only the first one against Key Bank had the Board of Park Commissioners as plaintiff. The remainder were filed by property owners as plaintiffs and the park board or director as defendants. They had all been upheld for the park district except the final one, the "2007 Supreme Court of Ohio (SCO) decision" that ordered the park to pay affected property owners.
There were 3 federal cases, two that were held in abeyance pending the outcome of the state court cases. After the 2007 SCO decision, these cases were re-opened but had not been adjudicated yet. A third federal case was opened earlier this year by the property owners who were shut out of another SCO case by not filing in time. These three cases were dropped as part of the final settlement.
OB: Was Erie MetroParks simply given bad legal advice regarding ownership of the trail corridor? Or was this controversy created by an overzealous park district or director?
Myers: I don't think there was "bad" legal advice. It had been title searched several times and if there was clearly a problem I would not think the park would have gone through with it, or would have found another way to work it out.
But, controversy was driven by a determined former park director and board of directors members (now gone or deceased) vs. equally determined, well-heeled property owners that drove and financed the opposition.
The railroad felt they owned the corridor outside of the old Milan Canal route and that the original lease of the Canal property by the railroad was still in effect. This was upheld as such in an early appeal.
I felt from the beginning that the lease of the former Milan Canal to the railroad would be the biggest problem. At least one property owner had taken possession of a portion of the leased right-of-way before the park district's involvement (the portion that blocked the Greenway south of Mason Road). That portion was never involved in this whole fight but it turned out to be a key to the property owner's arguments.
However, the Court, in the appeal mentioned above, held that the old canal land was privately owned, and that there was a valid lease that was still in effect and that the park could continue to build the trail. The fight then became where the private property started, and the leased property ended.
This whole experience could really be a test case for study in law schools. It had every conceivable twist you could think of. It was an unbelievable legal maze that both sides got trapped in at times.