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Posted on Sat. Apr. 19, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Unhappy trails: If you fail to plan, you should plan to fail

Pufferbelly controversy exposed problems that should be addressed

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There's no guarantee, of course, but perhaps a 3,100-foot section of the Pufferbelly Trail really will be built close to its originally proposed location now that a prominent developer and members of Fort Wayne Trails have replaced what had been public animosity with at least a semblance of cooperation.

But what about next time?

With an improving economy and the new Parkview Regional Medical Center driving development north of Fort Wayne – an area crucial to extending the Pufferbelly from downtown Fort Wayne to the Allen DeKalb county line – trail advocates, developers and government officials should immediately begin to consider what they can do to prevent a recurrence of what almost happened as a result of Jeff and Mike Thomas' Whisper Rock subdivision near Gump and Coldwater roads.

As I reported earlier this month, some of the 197 homes in Whisper Rock – approved Thursday by the county Plan Commission – will be built on the abandoned railroad right-of-way that had been eyed for inclusion in the Pufferbelly. Jeff Thomas this week agreed to make a sliver of Whisper Rock available and to work with Fort Wayne Trails to locate the Pufferbelly immediately to the west. Just one problem: He doesn't own the land, and perhaps never will.

Before planning for the future, it's always helpful to understand the past. In this case, that past included county development guidelines that dated back to the 1960s and, as such, did not include provisions for the trails that came into vogue years later.

It wasn't until a new county zoning ordinance took effect April 3, in fact, that trails were mentioned, according to Paul Blisk, deputy director of land use. “Where a plan showing specific trail locations has been adopted as an amendment to the comprehensive plan, and the plan shows a multi-use trail in a location where a sidewalk would otherwise be required, a multi-use trail shall be constructed instead,” it states.

But even if plans for Whisper Rock had been filed after April 3, the new ordinance wouldn't have protected the Pufferbelly because no comprehensive trails plan has been adopted by the county.

Therese Brown, an Allen County Commissioner and Plan Commission member, said it “might not be a bad idea” for the county to add a trails plan to the new ordinance, even though the Thomases probably would not have had to accommodate the Pufferbelly in any case because sidewalks are generally required along streets, not in an abandoned railroad bed.

Even so, Blisk said, the presence of proposed trails on county zoning maps “might frame the discussion differently. It might affect the lay out (of proposed developments).”

Jeff Thomas, meanwhile, suggested that trail supporters might be better served by working with government to install trails along existing or proposed roads, where right of way already exists. “Trails should be visible and connected, and it seems to me (advocates) should be asking highway departments, where are you expanding? Can we connect with you?” he said. Such an approach has already been taken in Aboite Township, he noted.

As Brown noted, that may not always be possible or aesthetically pleasing. The Pufferbelly, for example, is envisioned as part of a longer trail stretching all the way from Bluffton to Angola. But she said the county could consider a closer relationship with trails in its jurisdiction, such as Fort Wayne's inclusion of the Rivergreenway in its parks system. That could help address Thomas' concerns about the maintenance and safety of privately funded and managed trails.

And trail advocates can do more in their own behalf, especially after it became obvious during the public hearing for Whisper Rock that Fort Wayne Trails had not aggressively pursued acquisition of the land there. Trails board member David Van Gilder was right to note that trail supporters are generally less well-funded than developers, but they could do more to secure options on property and place a greater priority on land acquisition than on construction.

Ultimately, this community must answer this question. With their acknowledged impact on health, economic development and quality of life, should trails be considered as important as roads and other forms of infrastructure? If so, greater levels of government funding and involvement – including the use of eminent domain – could legitimately be considered.

But not before less-intrusive solutions are tried first: Allen County and other affected governments should plan for trails, developers should respect those plans to the greatest degree feasible and trail advocates should get busy raising money and contacting the people who control the land without which they can do nothing but plan.


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