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The Advertiser News (South) - December 20, 2001 issue

Area Officials Trying to Keep Trail Plan on Track

By Pat Mindos

Franklin - Frustrated borough officials and residents are working to get the state's Rails to Trails project back on track since very little progress has been made since the borough backed the plan more than 18 months ago.

The vice-chairman of Franklin's ad-hoc committee, which reviewed and recommended the plan, stressed why the project needs to move forward before it's too late.

"We seem to have a situation akin to closing the gate after the horse has left," said Phil Crabb, also president of the Franklin Historical Society. "We seemed to have missed an opportunity. We need to impress upon the important parties how much this project is significant to the borough. We need to move forward as a council and champion this cause. This is the key to all of the other initiatives, such as the revitalization of Main Street as it ties them all together. The important thing is that this trail should be built. We need to come up with solutions, creative or otherwise."

The committee recommended two proposals: converting an abandoned railroad bed into a biking, hiking, and walking trail; and permit the state to purchase the property for open space preservation.

As of December 18, no closures are imminent, but the state continues to negotiate with property owners. The state also hopes to make the trail barrier-free.

"We are only willing to deal with willing sellers," said Richard Osborn, of the New Jersey Green Acres Northwestern Team for acquisition projects. "We would like to see the other areas preserved and there are a number of ways, which that can be done, such as by the state, the local municipality, or non-profit organizations, like historical societies."

During a three-hour meeting, Lou Cherepy, Northern Regional Superintendent of State Park Services, Osborn and other New Jersey Green Acres officials, met December 11 with Mayor Edward Allen; Marianne Smith, Planning/Community Development Director for Franklin/Hardyston; and Borough Clerk/Administrator Rachel Heath. Since then, the mayor urged the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad Corporation, of Cooperstown, to sell a portion of the rail bed to the state.

"We wrote a letter to the railroad, and included again the documentations of the ad-hoc committee, and public support for the project," said Allen. "I am urging the railroad to sell the rest of the rail bed from Ogdensburg to Franklin for the Rails to Trails Project."

Councilman John Sowden is one borough resident that has misgivings about the project but he said he remains open to compromises.

"If we all sit down and listen to people, I think the trail is a doable project," said Sowden who owns property near the trail. "Certain members of the ad hoc committee need to be more receptive to the taxpayers who will be directly affected by the project."

The proposed trail will eventually include approximately 120 miles in Sussex and Warren County of which about three miles will be in Franklin, and five miles from the Sterling Hill Mining Museum to north Hamburg.

The council unanimously endorsed the plan, which eventually won awards on the county and state level.

The state's Green Acres Program is also using the plan as a template for other municipalities making application for green Acres preservation.

Councilman Sowden and Jim Williams abstained from voting because they own property, which adjoins sites recommended for state acquisition.

The Green Acres initiative includes several parcels of land for historic, botanical, and wildlife preservation, which the council approved for state preservation.

Despite the awards, conflicts remain including how the trail will impact its neighbors, such as the Immaculate Conception Church, its school building; and industrial sites.

Parents and school officials expressed concern about school safety and lack of building space.

The committee responded with recommendations including: the installation of buffers by using fencing and landscape to provide privacy for residents who live along the proposed sites; trails will not cut into residents' properties; and the state must assume responsibility for law enforcement on the trails.

The church recently purchased property from the New York Susquehanna & Western Railroad Corporation, of Cooperstown. Eventually, the church plans to expand to a portion of this property, which would limit public access along the trail and divert the path on to traveled roads.

Cynthia Collins, Hamburg-based attorney for the church, could not be reached for comment.

In addition, Sowden spoke of industrial sites located along the rail bed, which could be hampered by the trail. "My real concern is we have a group of taxpayers who pay a lot of tax money but the committee did not address their concerns," said Sowden. "Certain industrial sites could be prevented from future development if the trail went through along their property."

But Judy Williams, vice president of the Franklin Historical Society and a resident of Wildcat Road, urged the mayor and council to continue to pursue the project.

"This is an excellent project and it will benefit the young and old alike and that is rare that everyone can benefit," said Williams. "I commend the mayor and council for taking such quick action for a job well done in a very short time in getting this program going again. I urge you all to continue open talks and pursue the project."