Trail issue leads group to protest county actions

Group against CKC's lack of organization

Staff reporter

Twenty to 25 property owners crowded into the Marion County Commission room Monday afternoon to have their say regarding the county's involvement with Central Kansas Conservancy (CKC) and a nature trail in the county.

For these people, the issue is personal because it is interfering with their lifestyle and livelihoods.

County economic development director Teresa Huffman previously had reported to the commission that she had been approached by a member of the CKC regarding the creation of a trail on the former railroad bed.

The commission had instructed Hoffman to continue her fact-finding mission, unbeknown of the fury that awaited them.

The property owners, representing members of Citizens Association of Marion and McPherson Counties, wanted the commission to know that they were not against a trail across their properties, but seemed to be against the CKC.

Angy Jost of rural Hillsboro said the commission had passed a resolution several years ago that stated the county was not interested in pursuing a trail through the CKC group. She said she was confused about the resolution and then the commission's decision to pursue a trail.

She referred to state laws that requires Rails to Trails groups like the CKC to have a bond, plan, and insurance. Jost continued that landowners are paying taxes on that land because the trail group did not meet the requirements.

The group claimed to have paid as much as $50,000 in attorneys' fees to fight the trail through their properties. Members of the anti-trail organization at the meeting represented 20,000 acres of Marion County land, Jost said.

Commissioner Randy Dallke said Huffman had presented information that CKC still had authority.

Huffman said the CKC had an easement on those properties and her intent was to determine if it was possible for a trail to be developed.

Marion County Sheriff Lee Becker said there had been conflict between the CKC and landowners in the past. He said he was taking the side of the property owners because they are true owners of the property.

Dallke asked who would maintain fences. Huffman responded there were some obligations, per state statute, if there were fences which included the CKC being responsible for paying for one-half of the expenses.

Jost's main contention was the CKC had a history of not following compliance issues since easements were filed 12 years ago. According to state statute, the group was to make plans within two years, which had not occurred.

Jost and Becker referred to an incident that occurred three years ago when horses fell through a culvert that was owned by the CKC.

"It could have been a vehicle just as easily as horses falling through that hole," Becker said. "Patrolling or taking care of that area would be a nightmare."

Clark Wiebe of rural Hillsboro said he owned the property where the horses fell in the culvert and took it upon himself to have the culvert removed. He said he didn't even know who to contact at the CKC to have the culvert repaired.

He continued that he had noted that Huffman has taken the position of supporting the CKC rather than being a county representative which bothered him.

Kevin Jost said he lived along U.S.-56 and there is a fencing issue. He said members of CKC had told Jost to take down his fence or they were going to cut through it.

"I never said they couldn't build a trail," Kevin Jost said, "but they need to do it according to state statute. Where is the trail group? Where is the support?"

Huffman responded that CKC had contacted her regarding the trail. There is contact information on signs along the trail but the signs are taken down as quickly as the CKC can put them up. When asked whom to contact at the CKC, Huffman refused to divulge any names.

Later in the meeting, she stated the CKC's attorney was Michael Mills. Huffman said she didn't think it was her place to contact CKC regarding the meeting.

Federal regulations indicate the group has an easement so it doesn't matter if the county supports it because the federal government does.

She continued that she had copies of the group's liability insurance but not the plan. State statute indicates that the CKC would be responsible for liability issues, not property owners, Huffman said.

Allen Schlehuber of rural Hillsboro said children and bicycles can't be on a trail with his cattle. He also stated it was dangerous to have a trail where people hunt.

Cindy Reeh said she has been trying to sell her property but it has been difficult because she pays taxes on a portion that isn't in her control to use.

Angy Jost told the commission that the surface transportation board had told CKC to comply which they didn't.

"You're dealing with a group that lies and lies," Angy Jost said. "They haven't paid the taxes and never had any intentions of paying taxes.

"Bob (Hein), as my commissioner, I am asking you to listen to my voice. Surely we have better things to do than to contend with this issue," she said.

Becker asked if county attorney Susan Robson previously was involved in obtaining information. Dallke said the commission needed to talk with Robson, and see where the matter is.

Dallke also asked the position of McPherson County Commission which was not known at the meeting.

Becker commented that Marion County Commission had signed a resolution that denied participation with CKC but had a county employee promoting it.

After the meeting, Huffman commented that she was not affiliated with the CKC and was just obtaining information.

If the CKC would create a trail, Angy Jost said the group needed to be prepared to assume full responsibilities which included payment of any and all taxes.

"CKC can come and take the trail but has to take the responsibility," she said.

Later in the meeting, the commission decided to send a letter to Robson, requesting a status report. Commissioner Dan Holub suggested representatives of CKC attend a meeting to address issues.

The commission then directed Huffman to "back off" of the issue.

"I have made myself available to landowners and CKC representatives," Huffman said. "I can stop but somebody needs to be finding out these things. I'm not opposed to not having this. It is what it is."

She continued that the City of Marion has an agreement with CKC that will allow the city to maintain a trail outside of its city limits.

Huffman said it takes 10 years for communities to develop trails because of the opposition.

"I want the right thing to be done," she said.