Antis Township Supervisors hear public input on railroad bed

More than 40 years ago, the supervisors in Antis Township struck a deal with the Pennsylvania Railroad to purchase a one-mile tract of old railroad bed.
The supervisors, at that time, saw a goldmine in the layer of balace that accompanied the tracks. They used this balace to help with paving on township roads.
But as the years passed, the balace slowly dwindled away. Now, the property has no use to the township and leaders are trying to figure out what to do with it.
Last evening, the township opened the doors to its meeting room and welcomed more than three dozen concerned residents to offer their opinion on what the township should do with the property.
“About ten months ago, a resident approached me concerning the ATV traffic on the old railroad bed,” said Chairman Supervisor Leo Matuszewski. “We, here at the township, talked at length about it and decided the best thing to do was hold a public meeting to hear your comments. We want to know what you think.”
The opinions were varied. Some – mostly those who live on property that parallels the railroad bed – believe the township should sell it to them. Others see increased tourism and economic development possibilities with a Rail-To-Trails system. While others say the township should just keep the property for the time being and see if anything works itself out in the future.
Despite the purpose of the meeting, those attending used the forum to argue the benefits and disadvantages of a Rails-To-Trails system.
“I represent the 13 neighbors who live in that area and out of the whole bunch, only one is for Rails-To-Trails,” said Bob Himes, noting that he didn’t speak with the other family directly. “We’re hear to say that we don’t want people in our backyards. We don’t want the vandalism or the litter or the crime.”
But according to Palmer Brown, project manager of Rails-To-Trails, the vandalism, the litter and the crime “just doesn’t happen” on the trails.
“Statistically, it just doesn’t happen,” said Palmer.
Brown cited the Lowery trail near Williamsburg as an example. He said since 1994, there has been very little vandalism on the trail.
“No one can guarantee there won’t ever be occurrences there,” said Brown. “But looking at the Lowery Trail since 1994, it’s pretty evident that people care about the trail and want to keep the vandalism and litter out of there. So far, it has worked pretty well.”
Himes said he and the other residents of the area do not oppose the Rails-To-Trails project. He said their opposition lies in the scores of people who will be on or near his property while accessing the trail.
“The most attractive area of the trail would be from the reservoir on up to Blandburg,” said Himes. “That’s where it should start. Not in our backyards. We just don’t want everything that goes along with the people – the vandalism and the litter.”
Bob Smith, the resident who first approached the board ten months ago with a concern about the ATV riding, was one of the opponents to the Rails-To-Trails program back in 1996 when it first came to the supervisors’ attention.
“Then, I felt the same way many of you all do,” said Smith. “I was worried about the vandalism and the litter. But I was mis-informed.
“Since then, I’ve done my homework and now I don’t see the same problem that some people here tonight have referred to.”
According to Brown, who has worked on nearly a half dozen trail projects, said bringing a Rails-To-Trails project to Antis Township is essential for linking the communities of Bellwood and Blandburg.
“These kinds of projects really tie communities together,” said Brown. “There is an excellent opportunity here for the township and I believe it’s one of the most important project the township can do right now.”
Others disagreed.
“The are other things this township needs,” said Larry Nau, a resident of Fostoria. “Some places don’t have sewer. We have water issues. We don’t need to pay for exercise.”
The idea for a Rails-To-Trails in the area is not new. In fact, it is labeled as a “high priority” on the township’s comprehensive plan and was fully explored in 1996.
Dick Suter, the man who developed the plan eight years ago, discussed the process of developing the plan and what it would have taken to get the project moving. He said after the plans were drawn up, funding was looked into, but then fizzled.
“Funding sources weren’t as plentiful as they are today,” said Suter.
Suter claims this fall, windows for funding will open.
According to Brown, the Lowery trail cost about $470,000 to complete. He said a Rails-To-Trails program is federally, state and privately funded. He said the township could use the property as half a match for a state grant. Afterwhich, the township could seek federal funding with an 80/20 match – 20 percent of which would be footed by the township.
“I don’t want to see my neighbors penalized with another tax increase to help pay for a project like this,” said Dave Minehart, a 40-year-resident of the township. “Why penalize the tax paying people of the township?
“I think the property should be turned back over to the property owners.”
But according to Matuszewski, giving or even selling the property to the residents of the area isn’t feasible.
Matuszewski said the township’s solicitor informed him that if the property was going to be sold, it needed first to be appraised. If this appraisal reached more than $1,500, the property would have to be advertised for bidding or a public auction.
“I can’t see how it (selling the property) will benefit the town or the residents,” said Matuszewski.
Brown said the township could, however, convey the property to a non-profit group for a minimal fee.
“There would be several groups interested in acquiring the property or at least, to use it,” said Brown, “including ours.”
Still others, like resident Rick Sprankle, believes the township should hold onto the property and see what pans out.
Sprankle, a horse owner, claims the Pennsylvania Game Commission has decided to close the mountain to everyone after the snow melts away. He said the state is moving to this drastic measure after a recent incident in the eastern part of the state.
According to Sprankle, the use of ATVs, bicycle riders and other traffic had caused severe erosion to a state game land near Lititz. He said the commission is irritated that many residents, who don’t possess hunting licenses, are using the property. He added the game commission uses proceeds from hunting license sales to maintain these state game lands.
“We have to figure out what benefits everyone,” said Sprankle. “We’re losing all our riding areas.”
Following the meeting, Matuszewski said the supervisors will take everyone’s opinion into consideration and hopefully come to a conclusion in the near future. He said the topic will most likely be discussed at the meeting Thursday at the township building, but does not expect a resolution at that time.