County acts on rails to trails

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 19, 2014

Covington County’s three largest government entities have now passed resolutions supporting a proposed project to convert abandoned railroad beds between Andalusia and Geneva to trails.

The cities of Andalusia and Opp passed supportive resolutions in April; the commission did not act on the resolution then, and acted with hesitation earlier this week.

The CSX rail corridor is 43.8 miles long, and a group of enthusiasts is working to get Forever Wild, a land trust that has purchased more than 227,000 acres of land for public use since 1992, to work with them to acquire the property, which it would then seek funding to develop. It is estimated the property will cost $2 million.

Don Childre, who has led efforts for a proposed 400-acre Forever Wild project adjacent to Frank Jackson State Park in Opp, said the abandoned rail line runs through this project property, and would be used to access it.

“Property owners seem to think they are going to get this property back,” Childre said. “The railroad has done what is called rail banking. A regulation in the Department of Transportation allows them to put the property in a savings account to use later.”

In other words, if the railroad decided at any time in the next 100 years that it wanted to build a new line on the property, it could. It would, however, have to repay funds used to improve the property during that 100 years.

“It is not going to revert back to property owners,” Childre said. “On the line that was abandoned from Opp to Florala, the property went back to property owners. What’s going to happen with this, is the 100-foot strip of property, from Andalusia to Geneva, puts downtown Opp in the middle. The property will be used by hikers, bikers, or horseback riders. There will be no motorized vehicles, no cars, SUVS or four wheelers.”

Children said the bottom line is that having the trail, which would be the longest in Alabama, would bring people to the county.

“You would have hikers come into town, and stay in hotels. Most of the people you will find doing this are not going to make a mess. They are more gentle-type, outdoor people.”

Commissioner Joe Barton said he has talked with property owners who are concerned that, if the project goes through, hikers and bike riders will have access to their property.

“Are they going to fence (the trail) in?” Barton asked. “Are they going to improve the base for the trail? How are they going to cross the four-lane on 84?”

Scott Farmer of Southeast Alabama Regional Planning Commission explained it would be a property owner’s initiative to fence property in.

“There would be discussion between the Forever Wild stakeholders and local governments,” he said. “Normally, there is a management plan developed.”

Commissioner Harold Elmore also expressed concerns about people being able to access private property from the trails, and said he’d like to have a public meeting before the resolution was approved.

Andalusia Councilman Kennith Mount also addressed the commission in support of the project.

Mount said Andalusia and Covington County hosted the Alabama Tandem weekend earlier this year.

“We had 33 cyclists on 16 tandem bikes,” he said. “Most of them stayed at the Holiday Inn Express, ate lunch out, and ate supper out, adding to our tax coffers.

“That’s what we thrive on is tax money.

“We had people from Alabama, Florida, Georga, Tennessee, Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin,” he said. “If you drive from Wisconsin, you are looking for something to do. These people bragged about how beautiful our area was, and they were amazed that they could ride the roads and not feel like they would get run over.

“We’ve got a great thing going in our county,” Mount said. “Let’s enhance it with this.”

Barton made the motion to approve the resolution, “pending items in place.”

The proposed rails to trails project has not yet been presented to the Forever Wild board. The 400-acre proposed project in Opp is expected to be considered by the board this summer.