GREENFIELD — Dotted lines along a map of a vision for the Hancock County trails system have divided many county residents for months, between a desire for rural privacy and a strategy for more connectivity among communities.
The trails plan outlines bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly paths, both Pennsy-style multiuse trails and shared roadways. Community leaders have been discussing and working with consultants since last year to revise Hancock County’s 2012 trails plan into a vision that could last for 20 years or more.
The Hancock County Area Plan Commission on Nov. 27 approved recent changes to the trails plan amendment, pushing it forward to the Hancock County Commissioners for final approval.
But those changes didn’t come easily, as rural residents opposed several segments of the plan over the past few months, specifically proposed multiuse trails through Mohawk and along County Roads 600N and 200W near McCordsville and Fortville. County leaders removed each section to satisfy the complaints.
The county trails plan revision first gained steam a few years ago when Hancock County’s seven municipalities collaborated after receiving a $25,000 grant from the Hancock County Community Foundation. Multiple organizations matched the grant with $75,000.
The project’s consultants, Indianapolis-based Butler, Fairman and Seufert and Health by Design, and a 43-member committee held several public meetings about the plan in Hancock County communities over the past 11 months. More than 1,000 people provided comment on the plan online and in person.
Many people who don’t live within the county’s municipalities have long said the plan would hamper their privacy, suggesting people would walk on trails through their back yards. They also have expressed questions on how farming equipment traveling near proposed trails would mesh with bikers, walkers and pets.
Through conversations with consultants and county officials, if a trail is located next to an entrance to a farm field, the trail would be built with concrete on the ingress/egress instead of asphalt to support the weight of farming equipment, according an amendment approved by the plan commission.
Cheryl Cochard, who lives about two miles south of Mt. Vernon High School on County Road 200W, told plan commission members in October that she had concerns about safety if a trail is built along the county road. She said she can’t envision someone walking from Greenfield to Fortville on a trail.
“I am for trails, but I would like them to be thought out,” she said. “I don’t feel like this was.”
Other county landowners who have opposed the plan have expressed worries that the county will soon take away their land and build the trails. But in the trails plan resolution, the Hancock County Commissioners state they “will not invoke eminent domain to purchase private property for the sole use of public trails.” If a trail is part of a road widening or shared roadway project, the commissioners could allow it to be built, said Mike Dale, executive director of county planning and zoning.
A property owner would have to donate or sell land to the county or a developer for a trail without a corresponding road project.
That’s the case for a section of the Pennsy Trail between County Roads 400W and 500W. The trail is among the several proposed dedicated trail routes on the plan’s map. Mary Ann Wietbrock, the president of Pennsy Trails of Hancock County, said the revised trails plan has brought more awareness to the Pennsy Trail.
For years, the trail group and other community organizations have been working on a 4.5-mile extension of the 20-year-old county trail, connecting the two separate sections of the Pennsy Trail between County Roads 150W and 600W. Following the acquisition of grants and donations, the trails organization purchased the land needed for the 1-mile stretch of land thanks to willing landowners.
The Pennsy Trails group has been aiming to raise $200,000 to match 20 percent of a grant through the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization for a paved trail between the two county roads. That would complete the trail from Cumberland all the way to County Road 400E, a distance of 13 miles.
And while the Pennsy Trail has been a favorite attract for many county residents, most Hancock County municipalities have worked to expand their own trail systems over the past few years. Fortville, McCordsville, New Palestine and Cumberland have several active and planned community paths.
Jim Robinson, plan commissioner and building inspector for New Palestine, said the town has added several large concrete and asphalt sidewalks over the past couple of years, most recently between Gem Road and Depot Street, running along the former Interurban Railroad path through downtown.
‘It’s nice to see kids walking on sidewalks, people walking dogs, bicycles,” Robinson said. “We’re getting a lot of use out of it.”
Many of the subdivisions within New Palestine have their own trails and sidewalks, and so the officials decided to connect paths to those developments, Robinson said, making the town’s trails plan a reality.
“We’re trying to do our due diligence and as the growth occurs, we’ll develop the walk as well,” Robinson said.
Growth is the key, Robinson said. He sees both sides of the ongoing discussion surrounding the county trails plan. While he’s an advocate for a more robust trails system and the positive effect it has on property values, Robinson said he understands the concerns of rural residents.
“The walks that are going to go out in the rural areas, they’re going to have to go hand in hand with development,” he said.