By Doug Lindner
SOLON– To the north, the Cedar Valley Trail connects Waterloo and Cedar Falls to Cedar Rapids.
On the other end, Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty.
The missing link is in Solon’s back yard.
A five-mile stretch between Ely and Solon is all that separates two extensive networks of trails, and property owners along a proposed path were invited to talk about it for the first time last week.
The Johnson County Trails Foundation hosted a meeting Monday, Feb. 18, at the Solon Public Library, bringing together county officials and potentially impacted land owners in the very first step toward closing the gap in the regional trail system.
“It’s a very important section,” said Terry Dahms, chair of the Johnson County Trails Advisory Committee and a representative of the county trails foundation. “That is the missing link in this trail.”
The property in question is existing railroad right-of-way between Seven Sisters Road and the Lake Macbride Trail on the west side of Solon, noted Glen Meisner of MMS Consultants.
The purpose of the meeting, Meisner told land owners, was to provide some preliminary information about the pending project and take feedback. In what would be a joint effort, the eventual goal would be to acquire the right-of-way and develop the trail over the next four years.
According to Dahms and Meisner, the Cedar Falls to Ely route includes 65 miles of connected trails, including a recent network in Cedar Rapids, while the Iowa City area boasts a huge system, 80-85 miles in length.
“It would be fun, I think exciting, to get those two pieces connected, something we can leave hopefully for our children and grandchildren for recreation and other purposes,” Meisner said.
If land for the trail can be obtained, engineering would be expected in 2014 with construction the following year and an opening in 2016. Typically, a trail would be 10-feet wide, using asphalt, concrete or crushed rock for a surface.
But before that can happen, before anything can happen, the entities involved need to secure the right-of-way originally created with the expansion of the railroads in the 1870s.
Johnson County would seek either a quit claim deed or easement for the right-of-way, and a land agent will be hired to represent the county and negotiate with individual land owners.
The US Army Corps of Engineers, which owns a sizable tract along the proposed route, has already agreed to allow access, according to Johnson County Conservation Director Harry Graves.
“We’re having this informational meeting with you folks tonight to have a level playing field so everyone gets the same message,” Graves said.
Subsequent to the meeting, he said, property owners will be individually contacted by the land agent, and an appraisal will determine the fair market value. Fencing would be provided where there is a demonstrated need, he added.
Because it would link two large regional systems, Graves continued, the project would likely rank highly for funding.
Money for acquisition of the land and the construction of the trail could come from a number of sources, including private donations, the Johnson County Trails Foundation, and the 2008 bond measure which provided the conservation department with a $20 million, 20-year bond to acquire and develop lands for public access, air quality improvement, wildlife habitat and watershed protection.
An acquired route and local funding would also likely attract other funding sources, Graves said, like the state’s Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) grant program.
The Clear Creek Trail from Ireland Avenue in Tiffin to Half Moon Avenue, a $500,000 project, Graves said, leveraged about 92 percent of its cost from a REAP grant.
Representatives of other regional trails shared their experiences, generally positive with the crowd. Trails serve a recreational purpose for bicyclists, snowmobilers, hikers and cross country skiers, providing an economic benefit while preserving open space and natural settings.
But there’s a flip side with which many land owners were concerned with at last week’s meetings.
For farmers along the route, a trail could cause access issues for fields and an invasion of smaller vehicles competing with large farm machinery.
There are 13 property owners potentially impacted by the proposed route, and each of them is likely to have individual preferences, some of which were discussed at the meeting.
Would horses or ATVs be allowed?
“Virtually any situation is worthy of consideration,” Graves said, although other officials suggested there might be inherent conflicts when mixing horses and bicycles.
With 100-feet of right-of-way and a 10-ft railroad top, the opportunity exists for more than one trail, Graves said, although he pointed out the project is still in hypothetical stages.