“A Longer South Hill Rec Way?” – Ithaca Times, December 7, 2016

The December 7, 2016 Ithaca Times article, “A Longer South Hill Rec Way?” follows the following foreword:

On November 29, 2016, Tompkins County Planning Department held an “Open House” to drum up support for the proposed Extension of the South Hill Recreation Way. The Tompkins County Planning Department only notified trail advocates, and not landowners, ostensibly in an attempt to stack the meeting with supporters.

Town and county officials failed to properly inform landowners of the “Open House”.

  • At a meeting of the Coddington Land Stewards on Sunday, November 27, 2016, the only landowners who had heard of the “Open House” were Scott and Crystal Van Gaasbeck, who were notified informally by a voice mail left by Supervisor Mark Whitmer of Caroline on Friday, November, 25, 2016.
  • Richard Tenney, another landowner, was notified informally the day of the “Open House” by Supervisor Mark Whitmer of Caroline.
  • Many landowners did not know about the “Open House” until the last minute, and could not attend because of prior obligations. 
  • On Tuesday, November 15, 2016, Thomas Knipe sent out an invitation to the “Open House” to the apparent trail advocates in the following email, but failed to notify landowners

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December 7, 2016 Ithaca Times article, “A Longer South Hill Rec Way?”

Original article, “A Longer South Hill Rec Way?”

If all goes according to plan, there will soon be a convenient means for pedestrians and cyclists alike to easily travel from downtown Ithaca all the way to the fringes of Caroline and Danby without use of a roadway.

Last week, the Tompkins County Planning Department held a town-hall style informational meeting on its plans to expand the South Hill Recreation Way by several miles, one of five trails to be built or expanded as part of a Tompkins County Priority Trails Strategy approved by the legislature in 2014. The approximately three mile trail currently follows old Susquehanna rail beds along Six Mile Creek, ending near Burns Road and Ithaca’s reservoir. The current proposal aims to extend the South Hill Recreation Way three miles further down the old railbed, headed southeast from the eastern terminus at Burns Road and extending all the way to the intersection of Middaugh Road in the Town of Caroline.

If developed, Principal Planner with the County Tom Knipe wrote in an email, the surface would most likely be stone dust, similar to the surface on the existing South Hill Recreation Way. As a result from last week’s meeting, attended by more than 100 people, Knipe collected numerous comments expressing concerns on the project’s both positive and negative impacts. The reasons given for support included, but were not limited to:

  • Enhanced quality of life for nearby residents.

  • Appreciation for off-street transportation opportunity from the Brooktondale area.

  • Support for additional recreational opportunity for kids and seniors.

  • Positive experience of property owners adjacent to the existing South Hill Recreation Way.

  • Support for tourism and economic development potential.

  • Likelihood of increased value of adjacent properties.

Among those expressing opposition to the proposed extension, concerns that were voiced included:

  • Concern for loss of privacy of adjacent landowners.

  • Questions by some adjacent landowners about who owns the corridor and whether NYSEG has the right to license it for use as a trail.

  • Concerns about whether there are environmental contaminants in the existing rail bed, and if so whether trail development would disturb them.

  • Concern about loss of “natural” character of the existing informal trail between German Cross and Banks Roads.

  • Fears about increase in crime and trespassing associated with developing the corridor as a trail.

Construction will take place over a three-phase process, the first two of which could feasibly be completed by the end of 2017, planning staff said. Phase 3, they expect, will take longer to rebuild washed-out culverts and to meet with landowners adjacent to the NYSEG-owned land, which will license the land to the county for a 25 year period.

No specific cost or allocations have been named for the cost of the trail but, assumed to cost in the “tens of thousands of dollars,” plans suggest the project could easily be funded by the four communities expected to sign on to maintain the trail once completed: the Town of Ithaca, Dryden, Danby and Caroline.

While each municipality would maintain the segment that falls within their borders, the Town of Ithaca would take the lead on maintaining the trail.

Completion of the South Hill Recreation Way would add to the growing Tompkins County Trail network envisioned two years ago: the Waterfront trail now finished and the long-anticipated Black Diamond Trail all but wrapped up, just the South Hill Recreation Way and the proposed extension of the Dryden/Varna Trail coming off the East Hill Recreation way stand to be completed. Plans to complete the similar rail-trail project, the Gateway Trail, which will connect between Buttermilk and South Hill through the Emerson property, is still in progress, and will cross over the city’s infamous “bridge to nowhere,” an unused pedestrian bridge spanning Route 13 built with “use it or lose it” federal funding. County Planner Michael Smith told the Ithaca Journal last May the only thing restricting the project is the length of the permitting process and that it was “a guess” as to what time construction would begin, possibly stretching into next year.

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“South Hill Recreation Way Extension May Be Stopped by Landowners” -Ithaca Times, July 12, 2016

Original article, “South Hill Recreation Way Extension May Be Stopped by Landowners”

“South Hill Recreation Way Extension May Be Stopped by Landowners” -Ithaca Times, July 12, 2016

Residents near the proposed extension of the South Hill Recreation Way took the early initiative to voice their concerns about the idea last month at the Dryden Town Board meeting June 16, creating a question of ownership.

Six landowners at German Cross Road and Burns road area expressed their displeasure to the board during citizen’s privilege about the South Hill Recreation Way continuing along the abandoned railroad that cuts through their property.

One of the more consistent concerns was who actually owns the property and the rights: landowners or NYSEG, which was given the right-of-way to the land.

“The project is just getting underway so this is our first obstacle,” Dryden planning director Ray Burger said last week.

Burger said once the issue was raised at the meeting, attorneys began doing a full title search to see if NYSEG owned the land. He said the company does pay taxes and it has been understood that it is “reportedly” the owners.

The landowners at the meeting said they believed NYSEG to hold the right-of-way to the land for its own purposes, but that it was unable to give those rights away to people. Now they’re thinking it might not be true.

Under the initial understanding, NYSEG was giving its right to the towns the trail would go through for the purpose of extending the path two miles to Banks Road.

That NYSEG didn’t have the title, is “reluctant to enter discussions” about the trail and is asking for written approval from all adjoining landowners is a red flag, the residents said.

“There seems to be some lingering misunderstanding about ownership issues, or perhaps they are well understood by trail advocates but they are trying again with a new, uninformed board,” Caroline resident Scott Van Gaasbeck wrote in a letter he read to the board.

A letter went out to residents around three months ago that breached the idea of extending the trail, Burger said. The towns of Ithaca, Dryden, Caroline and Danby are just now starting to talk about it with a public hearing recommended for the future.

“We want to investigate these issues residents have,” Burger said.

In the 1950s, the railroad that had built the line ceased using the track. It had originally built it after Congress passed the Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 to provide railroad companies “right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States.”

As railroads began to abandon routes and their railway lines, court battles arose over to whom the land should belong: railway or land owner. The residents in attendance at the board meeting shared a list of relevant cases with the board that would give them, the landowners, legal ownership.

In the 1942 case Great Northern Railway Co. vs. United States, the court decided railroads had the right-of-way, but not the right to oils and minerals under the railroad line. They only had the right to build a transportation line that would help economy.

In the Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust vs. U.S. case of 2014, the court decided that when railroads abandon their track they also relinquish their rights to use it. Ownership would then revert back to landowners since railroads only needed a pathway.

These issues all arose in 2008, when the Caroline residents successfully fought against the extension. Included was David Wrisley III, whose family has owned the same plot of land for more than 100 years, and Gaasbeck.

“The prospect of legally defending ourselves and our farm for a second time feels like harassment and intimidation,” said Van Gaasbeck, who attended with his wife Crystal. “It is a truly undue burden for my family. However, the legal precedents are clear and resounding, and we will defend ourselves vigorously against any attempts by the Town to take our land, and we will seek damages and legal fees from the Town if we are forced to file suit.”

Burger cautioned that not all residents are against the idea of extending the trail. He said many have voiced their support.

In a 2009 Town of Ithaca trail survey on the effects of the South Hill, East Ithaca and Northeast Ithaca Recreation Ways on landowners’ lives and property, 59 percent of people on the South Hill path were “very satisfied” with the trail. More than half of respondents said it “much improved the quality of the neighborhood” and 42 percent said living near the trail is “better than expected.”

The study, which sent surveys to all residents living on the pathway, also found that the biggest perceived problem on the South Hill Recreation Way by landowners was unleashed and roaming pets. Trespassing, noise and loitering were minor problems. Vandalism and burglary were found to be small issues, with 80 percent saying vandalism “wasn’t a problem at all” (7 percent ranked is as a little problem) and 90 percent said burglary wasn’t a problem at all (2 percent ranked it as a little problem).