Dividing our Community: An Open Letter Regarding the Proposed “Extension of the South Hill Recreation Way”

Dear Friends and Neighbors in the Brooktondale Community and Beyond,

We are Crystal & Scott Van Gaasbeck of Under the Tree, a pottery and leatherwork business and fruit orchard on Middaugh Road. The abandoned D,L, & W Rail bed runs through our property, and cuts our orchard in two. It is our driveway, and our only access to our home and fields.

As you may know, for nearly ten years now, a small handful of government officials have had their sights set on this privately owned, abandoned rail bed for the proposed “Extension of the South Hill Recreation Way”. All the while, they have shrouded their plans with a cloak of secrecy, and have made empty promises that have stirred controversy in our small town, leaving us and our neighbors with deep, unsettling feelings of betrayal and dread, and heavy hearts. This controversy has has ripped our small community apart, forcing people to take sides instead of listening to and understanding each other and finding creative solutions and compromises.

People who once valued local government now resent it. People who were promised use of their neighbors’ land harbor resentment, and landowners are dismayed to see how quickly neighbors will discount their rights when egged-on by local government. The wounds to our townships will take years to heal.

Certain Town and County officials have resorted to the “The Greater Good” argument to justify a corridor for public recreation through our farms and near our homes. The “public” is made to believe they will be the beneficiaries of products of “The Greater Good”, encouraging taking from the few to support the many. This argument, seemingly innocuous, is easily supported by townspeople who don’t know the facts.

Certain government officials have failed to mention that they are using “The Greater Good” argument to invalidate the emotional and monetary harm inflicted upon us, and to justify the physical harm they would inflict upon the land. The resort to the “greater good” argument is in fact evidence of a failure of government to plan appropriately and work things out among the parties, and is not an acceptable justification for causing harm to individuals, a class of people, or the Earth.

In 2008 and again today, certain government officials have expressed contempt for landowners along the abandoned rail bed, all the while telling the public that they are working with us, that we’ll like having a public recreational corridor through the middle of our private, rural homes, and that we don’t own the land so we have no say in the matter. Not once has a meeting been held of affected landowners and Town/County officials. Many landowners did not know of the November 29, 2016 “Open House” because they were not invited to attend.

Since the railroad legally abandoned the line in 1956, private landowners between Ithaca and Owego have used and regarded it as their own. Nature has also contributed to reclaiming the land. We, along with our neighbors, have had our rights and privacy infringed upon by a few government officials who think they know of a better use for the land.

As a direct result of recent efforts to clearcut and surface the land for public recreation, the legal ownership of the abandoned rail bed has come into dispute. We want to express our gratitude to the members of the Caroline Board who raised concerns about these serious legal issues at a recent Agenda Planning Meeting. Sorting out the title issues for a long abandoned 189 year-old right-of-way will take time, and is ongoing right now. One thing is clear, however; the land is privately owned, and the only potential owners are the individual property owners along the abandoned rail bed, and NYSEG, who Tompkins County believes to be the owner of the land. Since the land is privately owned, the government does not have say in how it is used, no matter how compelling their plans.

In 2008, with regards to the use of the land, NYSEG wrote to the Caroline Town Board, “With respect to the issue of adjoining landowners, NYSEG is sensitive to the concerns of property owners adjoining the proposed trail, particularly farmers. NYSEG respectfully requests that the Town obtain written approval from all adjoining landowners, including farmers leasing land from NYSEG, in advance of NYSEG providing the Town with the above-described easement” -Bonnie M. McLaud, Lead Analyst, Property Management, NYSEG, January 30, 2008. Once it became clear that most “property owners adjoining the proposed trail” were not in support of the proposal, and hadn’t even been contacted about it, the Town of Caroline withdrew its support.

This time, Tompkins County has refused to provide us with the terms of the current “license agreement” with NYSEG, and whether it says, like in 2008, that “written approval from all adjoining landowners” is required. The County has even failed to show the document to board members from the four involved towns, raising suspicions. Scott and I formally asked the County for the document through FOIL requests in November and December of 2016. After they failed to provide it to us, we brought an Article 78 Proceeding against Tompkins County for failing to comply with the NYS Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). The local Supreme Court heard our case on Friday, March 24, and Justice Phillip R. Rumsey has made a ruling in our favor to compel the County to provide us with the “license agreement” along with other information they have been withholding.

The affected landowners have formed the group, “Coddington Land Stewards”, to help educate the rest of the community of why this recreation corridor is a bad idea for our community and our valley. We encourage you to take some time to read some of the letters written by other landowners and review the facts. Unfortunately, this is a contentious issue that is affecting our community right now, and is creating wounds that will take years to heal.

We invite you to visit our website to learn more: southhillrecreationway.org

If you have any questions or comments, you may direct them to coddingtonlandstewards@gmail.com

Your neighbors,
Crystal & Scott Van Gaasbeck