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December 19, 1999

National Desk 
Plan to Replace Rails With Trails Divides Town
By The New York Times 

WILLIAMSBURG, Mass., Dec. 18 - A two-and-a-half-mile abandoned rail corridor in this Connecticut Valley hill town of 2,500 residents is at the center of a heated dispute between champions of privacy and community.

Opponents of a bike path planned for the corridor where the New Haven & Northampton Railroad once ran cast the debate as a property rights issue. Supporters see narrow-minded self-interest blocking a project that could preserve the environment, promote health and help people connect.

The battle mirrors others being waged nationwide.

Of the estimated 300,000 miles of tracks laid in the United States starting in the 1830's and peaking around 1920, about 160,000 miles are no longer used, said Craig Della Penna, a New England representative of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. His organization, based in Washington, envisions a web of "rail-trails" using these rights of way to connect communities and eventually create a coast-to-coast bicycle route.

Congress, recognizing that lost rail corridors would be difficult to reconstitute if needed again, passed the Rail Banking Act in 1983, effectively giving local and state governments the first right to abandoned beds. Since then Congress has appropriated close to half a billion dollars for trail construction.

So far, 11,000 miles of trails have been built nationwide, and 19,000 more miles are in development, Mr. Della Penna said.

But property rights advocates regard this transformation of abandoned railroads as theft, because the properties were often originally taken by eminent domain or the railroads were granted easements.

Nels Ackerson, a Washington lawyer whose firm represents opponents of the Williamsburg project, testified before Congress two years ago that many beds assumed to be owned by railroads in fact belonged to individuals along the lines and should revert to them when the trains stop running.

"Trails proponents see opportunities for recreational uses and often view my clients as greedy or disgruntled neighbors, rather than as the owners of the land that is to be taken for the trail," Mr. Ackerson said.

His firm represents 27 people in Williamsburg who claim title to pieces of the proposed trail.

The Massachusetts Electric Company purchased the corridor, thinking it might be useful for power lines after train service ended in 1962.

But Michael Pill, a local lawyer hired by Mr. Ackerson's firm, said after researching the deeds that the utility purchased property the railroad did not own. "They bought the Brooklyn Bridge," Mr. Pill said.

Mr. Della Penna said it was unusual for opposition to such plans to be as virulent as it is here.

Many residents were taken aback, for example, when the anti-trail group, Railtrail Impact Committee for the Hilltowns, sent a letter this fall to everyone who signed a petition supporting the project. The letter suggested that recipients might be held liable for costs associated with the project if they did not remove their names from the petition.

Jean Hemenway, who was a member of the town's governing board from 1970 to 1988, said she liked the idea of a bike path when it was first raised 13 years ago, thinking it would be nice for children to ride from one part of town to another without having to use a state highway.

A member of an early bike path committee, the author Tracy Kidder, recalled the opposition from neighbors of the rail corridor who feared that a paved trail would bring crime and debauchery into their backyards. Mr. Kidder said one objection was that elderly women would be subjected to the spectacle of spandex-clad men pedaling past their windows.

Planning was shelved because of difficulties securing federal grants, Ms. Hemenway said, but it resumed four years ago after the success of the nine-mile Norwottuck trail linking the nearby college towns of Amherst and Northampton.

Three years ago, opponents of the project contacted the National Association of Reversionary Property Owners for advice. Narpo, a clearinghouse for rail-trail opponents around the country, is led by Dick Welsh, a retired airline pilot who lives in La Quinta, Calif.

The Internet domain name of one Narpo chapter (www.railtrail.org) is similar to that of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (www.railtrails .org). The chapter's Web site refers to bike path supporters as "eco-nuts" and communists and contains a link to an article co-written by Mr. Welsh that offers instruction on fighting trail projects.

Acting on Mr. Welsh's suggestions, opponents of the Williamsburg project videotaped meetings of the town's governing board for more than two years while raising legal and procedural questions about the project.

The question of ownership is scheduled to go to mediation between the corridor's neighbors and Massachusetts Electric in January, but the town voted overwhelming in November to go ahead with the project. Officials have said they want to go ahead, even if that means using eminent domain to seize the land.

The larger issue the dispute raises, Mr. Della Penna said, is whether Americans want to isolate themselves or rekindle the sense of community "we used to have when we had places with sidewalks and houses with front porches."

Rail-trails are "America's new front porch," he said.

Those sentiments do not sway Linda Rowley, who gave up a nursing job to work full time fighting the bike path, which is right outside her kitchen window.

"At what point does their opinion supersede my right to own my property in peace and quiet?" Ms. Rowley asked.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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