LINDSBORG — Members and supporters of the Central Kansas Conservancy were blocked Saturday morning as they attempted to begin work to connect the Meadowlark Trail from north of McPherson to Lindsborg.
McPherson County sheriff’s officers were on hand as landowners and others opposed to the development used vehicles to block the volunteers.
Volunteers were attempting to work on the trail after a recent court ruling that they said granted them access to the trail. But now they’ll be headed back to court.
A motion hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Sept. 25 on a lawsuit filed in late 2015 by the Central Kansas Conservancy against Kim and Clinton Sides, who own property just north of Pawnee Road.
Members of the conservancy instead Saturday worked on maintenance of the McPherson trail.
“We’ve had the right-of-way to do this since 1997. The CKC has the deed to the trail. The railroad had it and gave it to us,” said Michele Cullen, president of the CKC board. “It’s a federal right-of-way. The deed allows us to use the corridor vacated by the railroad company as a recreational trail.”
Opponents included owners of property that abuts the proposed development site.
A long history
Tracy Presnell, who owns property abutting the trail, said, “We’ve been fighting this thing for almost 22 years.”
Cullen said that since her group received the right-of-way, two phases of the Meadowlark Trail have been completed.
Phase I included developing the 4-mile trail from Pawnee Road to McPherson. Phase II included nearly 3 miles from Shawnee Road to Lindsborg.
“All that’s left is Phase III and connecting them for a 12-mile trail,” Cullen said.
The developed trails include benches, trash cans and decks over bridges, Cullen said.
Development of the final phase has been contentious for many years.
In late 2015, the CKC sued the Sides in an effort to gain access to the corridor and complete the trail.
Cullen said she met with the Sides twice prior to filing the lawsuit.
“They kept denying us access and wouldn’t allow us to develop the trail,” she said.
Clinton said the CKC has allowed the corridor to sit idle for too long.
“The statute of limitations of the KRTA (Kansas Rails to Trails Act), which the state of Kansas made, said they had within two years of receiving the deed to build the trail, not 20 years,” he said.
District Judge Marilyn M. Wilder recently ruled in favor of the CKC, stating that “the KRTA (Kansas Rails to Trails Act) does not apply to this case and … rails to trails easements, which are held for public purposes, are immune from statutes of limitations or adverse possession.”
“When the railroads first came here, the state said whenever they pulled their tracks, the property would go back to the landowners,” Clinton said. “In the ‘80s, they started abandoning them and had to put the land back to the way it was. They got out of paying a lot of money for cleanup when Congress allowed them to do a railbank agreement and give the corridor to a trail company. They got a tax break for deeding it off.”
Cullen said the railbanking system mandates that corridors be developed for public use.
Plans to appeal
Judge Wilder also recently ruled that “the defendants (the Sides), do not have the right to exclude Plaintiff (CKC) from the property by making it inaccessible due to fencing or by posting ‘no trespassing’ signs or in any way interfering with plaintiff’s use of the property as it begins to develop the trail.”
She wrote: “the court cannot find as a matter of law that the defendants have no right to use the corridor at this time.”
Presnell said Wilder’s ruling was “not definitive.”
“Our lawyer, and I say our because we’re all behind Clinton (Sides), said it’s not a final decision. We’re trying to get it to a point where there’s a ruling that we can appeal, but this isn’t it,” he said. “We know we will appeal if we have to. We’re willing to go to the appellate court and Kansas Supreme Court. ... Why would they attempt to start on something that could get reversed?”
Presnell said lawyers from both sides have filed more paperwork to “get this down to an appealable decision.”