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COLUMN

Detour ahead for one of area's major recreational trails?

New housing project in way of proposed 'Pufferbelly' route

Tuesday, April 8, 2014 - 8:29 am

The Pufferbelly Trail was supposed to follow an abandoned railroad line from downtown Fort Wayne north to the Allen-DeKalb county line. But, thanks to the very different interests of trail advocates and developers, a detour may be needed.

“We're trying to work with them to fulfill the community's vision, but there's no right-of-way, which is why we're concerned,” Fort Wayne Trails Executive Director Lori Keys said, referring to developer Jeff Thomas' plan to convert the 152-acre former Pony Town campground near Huntertown into an upscale 197-lot subdivision called Whisper Rock.

It's not as though Thomas, who owns Oakmont Development with his father, Mike, is hostile to the recreational paths that are becoming increasingly common and popular. They have accommodated trails in several previous projects, and Whisper Rock includes sidewalks and trails as well. But in the case of the Pufferbelly – named for the smoke-belching steam locomotives that once traveled the Fort Wayne, Jackson and Saginaw Railroad -- it simply isn't feasible, Jeff Thomas insists.

The wooded right-of-way extends 3,120 feet along almost the entire length of the property's western edge, and preserving a 50-foot-wide swath would eliminate 23 lots worth about $2.5 million, Thomas said. And although it's theoretically possible to keep the same number of lots by reducing their size, that would be made more difficult by both geography and economics. Two existing lakes are protected by law, Thomas said, and people willing to pay up to $600,000 for a home also generally prefer large lots.

What's more, Thomas said, a house has already been built on the right-of-way adjacent to his property, meaning the trail would have had to adjust in any case.

Keys and Thomas were scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss the apparent impasse. “Hopefully, we can work something out,” Keys said.

Thomas, however, gave no indication a redesign is forthcoming before Thursday's public hearing on the project before the Allen County Plan Commission.

“We want to do what we can to help, but the question is, 'What's the highest and best use for that property?' There's plenty of land to the west (for the Pufferbelly),” he said.

What constitutes “highest and best” will be in the eye of the beholder, of course. Some will no doubt accuse Thomas of putting profit above the public good; others will acknowledge the demand for quality housing in the fast-growing area around the new Parkview Regional Medical Center and the gravity of expecting any businessman to pass up the chance to make millions of dollars in a post-recession economy.

“We understand property rights,” Keys said.

That understanding will be crucial not only in resolving this barrier, but in securing the land needed to extend the Pufferbelly as part of Indiana's “Visionary Trail all the way north to Steuben County and South to Bluffton.

This problem could have been avoided, after all, had trail advocates purchased this piece of the right-of-way from Pony Town owner Jack Maines before his death in 2012. Assuming Thomas does not change his plans, the Keys' best hope is to buy land immediately to the west as inexpensively as possible. If that happens, the additional cost and distance should be minimized.

But trail supporters should consider this episode a wake-up call for the need to more aggressively and effectively secure the land they will need – an effort that will require more vigilance from donors and, perhaps, from government.

Just last week, for example, the Allen County Commissioners were scheduled to loan Fort Wayne Trails $100,000 toward the construction of a 1.25-mile stretch of the Pufferbelly between Dupont and Carroll roads. But action was delayed, Commissioner Nelson Peters said, until the organization has more money in escrow.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently clouded the issue too when by an 8-1 vote it cast doubt on the federal government's claim to ownership of some abandoned rail right-of-ways. City officials say they are uncertain what affect, if any, that may have on efforts to develop trails in this area.

If trails are an acknowledged public asset – and they are – the use of eminent domain may be legitimate (preferably before right-of-ways are developed). But condemnation can be costly, controversial and time-consuming, meaning supporters of trails cannot afford to assume land they need will always be available, or that developers in business to make money will be willing to make a lot less of it.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.