In a different time, you wouldn’t have expected to see the likes of Jerry Lahmers and Dan Rice walking down this gravel path chatting about family, politics and the cattle business. Their attention would have been on something other than the shagbark hickory that stood between them and the afternoon sun.
In fact, it was this abandoned railway, which cuts across cropland and cow pastures on its way from Cleveland to Marietta, that had become a dividing line in the Tuscarawas County community of Newcomerstown.
On one side were outdoor enthusiasts of Rice’s sort who envisioned the economic development and enhanced quality of life that would come by opening access to the scenic countryside. On the other were the seasoned farmers like Lahmers wondering if their property rights would be trampled in the process.
But before those issues were sorted out, the strip of land was deeded to a trail development organization, and well-meaning, although arguably ill-equipped, volunteers began work on what is now the Buckhorn Creek Trail.
“It didn’t start out very well to be perfectly honest with you,” said Rice, president and CEO of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition who was serving on the board of the trail group that had taken ownership of the land.
The volunteers had lacked surveying equipment, engineering drawings and a detailed plan. Meanwhile farmers were raising questions about fencing, road access and damage to the culverts that drained their fields.
It wasn’t long before the standoff required the far-too-familiar intervention of lawyers and local law enforcement. Tensions were running so high that public officials threatened to halt all trail development in the county.
That’s when Rice, a passionate trail advocate, found himself in the unusual position of calling for a stop to the project. It was an uncomfortable stance that initially threatened his seat on the board, but eventually led to the Ohio and Erie Canalway Coalition taking over the land. And that brought hope for a fresh start.
Admittedly, Lahmers was skeptical.
“Do you realize the risk you’re taking?” he had asked Rice following an early public meeting.
Rice responded, “Sometimes the greatest risk is not doing anything at all.”
For his part, Lahmers did see value in developing the railroad bed.
“This certainly adds to the quality of life, especially for those folks that live in town and don’t have as nice of a chance to get out and experience the rural atmosphere,” he said.
As farmers, “We could probably do without it,” he acknowledged. “Right now they’re walking through the middle of our farms, which can be a concern.”
But then, as he has a tendency to do, Lahmers looked at things from another perspective.
Since the trail was here to stay, “Certainly it doesn’t hurt us to have people exposed to agriculture,” he figured. “It gives us a chance to talk about farming and livestock when they can see it firsthand.”
Ultimately, it was a commitment to better understand each other that allowed both sides to find a path forward. Lahmers, working through the county Farm Bureau, led an effort to establish a county parks department that would be accountable for trail development issues. Rice worked to ensure that landowners were given a voice in numerous planning meetings.
“As my grandfather always said, there’s a reason why the good Lord gave us two ears and one mouth,” Rice said.
The result of the collaboration produced the Tuscarawas County Trail and Green Space Plan, a vision for the conservation and development of the area’s cultural, natural and recreational resources. Now there are more than 150 miles of planned trails in the county and a concerted effort to promote agricultural land and greenspace. Each year, the Tuscarawas County Farm Bureau supports a dinner fundraiser for the trails program.
Rice said none of this would have happened without the work of Lahmers and the Tuscarawas County Farm Bureau along with local elected officials and trail advocates.
“From my perspective this is a model for that type of partnership and collaboration,” he said.
Lahmers said he’s pleased that there is now a process that allows community members to work cooperatively to resolve their concerns.
“Our roots run deep in Tuscarawas County, and we want to keep it a good viable economy and a good agriculture community,” he said.
Exploring the Legal Landscape
Ohio Farm Bureau members have outlined their vision for successful trail projects through the organization’s grassroots policy process.
In working with members, Leah Curtis, the organization’s director of agricultural law, said one of the first questions to consider is who rightfully owns the proposed trail land. Was it the property of the railroad, or was it in an easement that may lawfully belong to the adjoining landowner?
However, if a trail project is moving forward, a number of legal questions should be addressed, namely concerning trespassing and liability.
“There are dangers on a farm that people might not be aware of,” Curtis notes.
The safety of children who wander onto private property is of particular concern and may increase landowner liability under Ohio’s attractive nuisance law. Landowners also have raised concerns about littering, adequate parking, trail maintenance and the ability to move farm equipment if the project divides a field.
To help address these issues, Curtis said landowners should become involved in project planning to advocate for provisions such as vegetation and fences that discourage trespassing and to raise awareness among trail proponents and local law enforcement.
“It doesn’t have to be adversarial if both sides are willing to work through these issues,” she said.
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