By Joseph Slacian
A stop work order was issued last week to officials of the Wabash River Trail, Wabash County Plan Commissioner Mike Howard told The Paper of Wabash County.
The order, which Howard said he issued on March 20, is because the group worked on a boat ramp near the bridge on State Road 524 without having received proper permitting.
River Trail officials filed the permit requests with the DNR; however, official approval has not yet been received for the work.
“It was their only violation,” Howard said. “We discussed it with the DNR and determined this was the best course of action.”
The stop work order means that any work pertaining to the flood plain area cannot be done until the stop work order is lifted, he said.
The group has filed permits with the county to create restroom facilities and a pavilion in downtown Lagro, Howard said. Because those are not near the flood plain, those projects are not affected by the stop work order.
The DNR, on Monday, April 3, approved the request for work on the Lagro boat ramp.
Howard told The Paper that he had not yet received paperwork about the permit, but once it is will received the Wabash County Plan Commission will consider whether it will life the stop work order.
He said the board must consider if there are other issues it might be concerned with before deciding whether to issue a local permit.
The Plan Commission meets at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 6.
In the meantime, the group could face fines for working on the site without the permits. Fines would be up to the DNR on a state level and from the Wabash County Commissioners and Wabash County Plan Commission locally, Howard said.
On Friday, Wabash River Trail officials also received word from Duke Energy that the utility will not agree to the current plans it has to extend the trail from Lagro to Wabash. In fact, Duke spokesperson Angeline Protogere told The Paper that the utility wasn’t aware of the final plan until after the work was started.
“Our Asset Protection Group, which oversees our easements, was not aware of the final plans or details of this project prior to the work beginning,” she wrote in a prepared statement. “We were contacted by the trail’s design firm in September 2015 for information on trails in utility easements, and we provided our guidelines. They shared a preliminary route option with us, but we did not receive any final detailed plans or a request to approve them.
“We became aware that the project was underway during one of our routine helicopter patrols in February. We have since been contacted by the design firm with their plans and have explained the easement and issues involved.
“In respect to our easement, while we can allow the portion of the project that replaces the existing Basin Street, we cannot approve the remainder of the trail in our easement as currently proposed.”
That, she said, includes a retaining wall near the Lagro Little League baseball diamonds.
The exception for Basin Street, Protogere told The Paper on Monday, is because “Basin Street has existed for decades in our easement, and although we would not permit its construction there under our guidelines today, we are only agreeing to replacing the street with a trail in the Basin Street area—there is no change of scope or extension of what was already there. We cannot agree, however, to the parts of the project outside of Basin Street as currently proposed.”
Under Duke’s guidelines for trails, which Protogere provided, “a minimum separation of 25 feet is required between the trail and its associated easement, to any Duke Energy electrical facility. This includes, but is not limited to, poles, towers guy anchor(s) equipment, etc. If the owner of the trail is not the current owner of the fee simple title to the lands underlying Duke Energy’s easement, the trail owner shall obtain a legally sufficient easement from the current fee simple title owner and produce said easement to Duke Energy prior to commencing activities within the Duke Energy easement. In the event a private easement is not required, no portion of the trail or shoulder, or associated grading, shall be located within 25 feet of any electrical facility.”
The agreement further reads that “no structures, including, but not limited to lights, signs, benches, exercise equipment and irrigation systems shall be located within the Duke Energy easement.”
At a February Wabash Board of Public Works and Safety meeting, board members asked about the Duke easement. Trail Committee President Amy Ford said that Duke “doesn’t have a facility in that area.”
However, when notified that a power pole is considered a Duke facility, construction manager Eric Wolfe said he had worked with the utility and “they have no problem at all building within three feet of their poles.”
Ford and trail committee attorney Mark Frantz were asked to comment on the stop work order. Both referred questions about the trail to trail developer, Dawn Kroh, at Green 3, Indianapolis.
Kroh said the WRT reached out to Duke on Sept. 18, 2015, to determine if the utility would allow trail development in proximity to their power lines.
“At that time WRT submitted to Duke maps showing preliminary alternate routes being considered for development of the WRT,” she continued. “The purpose of the information exchange was to notify Duke that WRT was considering trail development that could include work within their easement, and to have Duke identify any areas where trails could/could not be constructed on Duke’s easement. This back and forth exchange is where WRT learned that Duke is a friend of trails and routinely allows trail development within their easements.”
Kroh, in an email to The Paper, said “Construction plans and permitting have only been pursued for Phase 1A which is the section within Lagro. The rest of the Phase 1 trail extending west from Lagro to Wabash is under design now and permitting will be submitted once the final route and construction drawings are complete.”
As required by law, she continued, “public notices have been sent to all affected property owners notifying them of the permit application and details, and public notices have been posted in the paper as required.”
As for work on the boat ramp without permits, she said that it indeed was started, but when WRT officials had heard about it they imposed their own stop work order at the site.
“The boat ramp was already in existence in Lagro and it is located on private property not owned by WRT,” Kroh wrote. “The boat launch area was eroded, overrun with invasive species, and difficult and somewhat dangerous to access. The property owner was eager to see improvements made and initial work commenced to pick up trash and debris and to remove invasive species. These activities do not require a CICF or Rule 5 permit.
“As this initial work concluded the landscape contractor continued work to stabilize the existing bank that had been cleared of invasives and to grade the access ramp to correct the existing erosion problems. Unfortunately, the construction crew proceeded with this additional work not understanding that the permit was needed because of the nature of stabilization and erosion control work required.
“As soon as it was discovered that this work had commenced without a permit the WRT imposed their own stop work order on the site last December and no additional work has been undertaken. Once the CICF permit is in hand WRT will immediately submit the necessary documentation to the County to obtain their approval. Work will not resume until that is in hand.”
Kroh contends that the group has been open about the work in Lagro.
“Property owners have been notified, public notices have been in the paper, presentations have been made to the Lagro Town Council and the WRT has a website that provides information about the trail,” she wrote. “WRT has also met and coordinated with many adjacent property owners, businesses, and agencies over the past two years as part of the WRT’s outreach efforts. Additionally, the WRT has executed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Town of Lagro outlining the WRT’s development plans in Lagro and detailing the Town and WRT’s responsibilities for the planning, development and operation of the trail.
“It is unfortunate that members of the public do not recognize this outreach has been conducted. I am hopeful that by providing a thorough background on the public input that has been requested and received that those who feel the process has been secretive will have a better understanding of the efforts that WRT has been taking to inform, educate, and communicate with the public.”
However, WRT officials have still not accepted an offer by The Paper of Wabash County to host a forum featuring both trail proponents and opponents which would be streamed live on Wabash WebTV.
“The WRT is very appreciative of your offer to host the forum,” Kroh wrote, noting that during a conversation with Butcher it was indicated that the group plans to host a Town Hall meeting later this summer to “provide an update on the status of the Phase 1 trail.”
“WRT’s goal is to have the Phase 1 route from Wabash to Lagro established so that the entire Phase 1 project can be presented to the public, including the section from Lagro to Wabash for which the alignment has not yet been set,” Kroh continued. “Field ecologists are actually out in the field (Thursday, March 30) identifying the location of sensitive habitats to be avoided (i.e. wetlands, sensitive species locations, eagles nests, etc).
“WRT wants to have all information in hand regarding all aspects of Phase 1 trail development before we present to the public. It is important to the WRT that we be able to answer peoples questions with well researched facts and accurate information during the meeting and as such are working hard to assemble the information needed for the meeting this summer. This will be an open public meeting and we will be sure that it is well publicized ... We hope that everyone who has an interest in learning more about the project and providing constructive input will attend.”
In February, Wabash River Trail officials asked the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority for $960,236 from the Road to One Million funds the region received from the State of Indiana. The funds would be used for the Lagro-to-Wabash portion.
As part of the process, trail officials were required to submit a plan to the RDA board, according to Michael Galbraith, director of the Road to One Million.
The officials submitted plans for a portion of the trail from Lagro to Wabash, both he and Kroh confirmed.
“WRT has completed construction documents for the Lagro section (Phase 1A) but does not have completed construction plans for the remainder of Phase 1 (Lagro to Wabash – Phase 1B),” she wrote. “WRT did submit a preliminary plan as part of the RDA application for all of Phase 1. The submission included the construction documents for Phase 1A and alternate alignments for Phase 1B that would be pursued depending on availability of property, environmental issues, et cetera.
“The preliminary cost estimate for the Phase 1B work provided as part of the application was developed based on the approximate length of the entire Phase 1 trail and standard unit costs for trails of this type and length.”
Attempts to gain comment from Galbraith on what the WRT plans entailed and whether the issues with the DNR and Duke would have any factor on the RDA funding.
Trail officials, as well as officials from the Honeywell Foundation, could learn as soon as April 11 if their requests for funds have been accepted. The Honeywell Foundation, at the February RDA meeting, requested $996,567 to help refurbish the Historic Eagles Theatre.
The meeting, which will begin at 2 p.m., is expected to take place at the Honeywell Center.
In a related matter, Butcher and his wife, Sheila, spoke on Monday, March 27, before the Wabash County Council, to air concerns about the trail.
“We’re not here against riders or the economic growth,” Butcher said. “We are against how the Wabash River Trail Inc has gone about the development of the project and then oversight of Wabash County elected officials. As we all know, Wabash River Trail Inc. started with no issued state or local permits.”
Butcher also raised safety concerns along the area.
“Wabash County cannot afford to hire more police officers to patrol this 33-mile bike trail,” he said. “We have a drug problem; crimes happen. It’s not the bikers that are the problem. It is the criminal element who like waiting for the unexpected people.”
Butcher also thanked the Regional Development Authority for passing a resolution in March saying it won’t seek eminent domain to acquire land for the trail. However, he expressed concern about other state agencies possibly doing so, should funding be sought in the future.
Council member Matt Mize noted that he has been to several meetings, and only those who opposed the trail spoke. He wondered why proponents were not willing to speak for their cause.
At the end of the nearly 30-minute discussion, Council President Jeff Dawes told the Butchers and opponents in the audience that at the present time, there is nothing the Council can do. However, he added, Council members will keep their concerns in mind should there come a time when the panel should be required to render a decision on a matter.