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Perkiomen Trail Poses a Threat to Private Property Owners

The Mercury
Pottstown, Pennsylvania
June 10, 2001

by Carol W. LaGrasse
Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc.

The Perkiomen Trail poses a threat to private property owners in two important respects:
(1) The construction of the trail route itself, including the acquisition of easements and full title land, whether by condemnation or voluntary, and
(2) The long-term, broad-scale acquisition of private property along Perkiomen Creek and in the vicinity.

First, judging by experiences elsewhere in the country, the creation of the Perkiomen Trail poses a grave threat for private property owners because of the nuisances that the trail will conduct onto their land in one way or another.

As opposed to the type of parks that people are used to, trails are not square and blocky, but are linear, and therefore difficult to fence and patrol. Acts of violence and lesser crimes such as littering, fires, use of alcoholic beverages and drugs are a problem with trails. These offenses occur along the back yards of the properties along the trail. Sometimes the misuse of trails involves repeated, extreme noise, as when ATV's take free rein, and this can be right outside the back doors of property owners, also creating a lot of dust.

A brochure for the Schuykill River Trail alludes to another problem that property owners along trails generally experience. Trail users intrude into adjacent property all along trails. Where the property is open and rural, this may matter less to the property owner, but in the densely subdivided properties along parts of the Perkiomen Trail, backyards that are intimately connected to people's houses can easily be trespassed into. A brochure does little to solve the problem.

Municipalities that build trails do not like to fence them, because of cost and because fencing would reduce the pleasant feeling of "open space," which is ironically donated by the owners of the properties along the trail; but fences are the only protection from trespass. In fact, municipalities rarely even place protective warning signs marking boundaries at regular, short intervals along trails, for the same reasons. It is my personal opinion that the paper warnings on pretty brochures conceal the fact that lack of physical protections encourages intrusions on adjacent property.

When you come down to it, municipalities generally do as little as possible to respect the private property owners who are saddled with the impact of trails. Take liability, for instance: Formally recorded easement documents rarely convey liability, and the assumption of all legal costs, in perpetuity to the municipality.

Of course, the easements obtained by municipalities don't provide for reversion of the title to the underlying property owner if the trail doesn't work out after a trial period of, say, five or ten years. I've never seen an enforceable easement clause requiring adequate patrol of the trail. There is no municipally funded legal fund from which property owners can draw to bring lawsuits if the trail becomes a nuisance to them. Property owners are left with the additional burden of paying for litigation to collect damages caused by the trail.

But on a second level, trails like that along the Perkiomen pose an even more significant threat. Judging by Montgomery County's series of maps tentatively depicting the trail route (and alternate, where applicable), the county as well as the Audubon Society own a great deal of land along Perkiomen Creek. In fact, three substantial county parks along the creek are shown, with discontinuous parcels of land apparently being gradually filled in. The trail goes in and out of the parks, probably depending on practical design factors.

As a civil engineer, as well as an expert in greenways, it is apparent to me that the County is involved in acquiring virtually all of the private land along Perkiomen Creek and in the vicinity. It is not just a trail that is being created, but a true greenway.

In a greenway, private land is acquired by government or so strictly regulated that it has little private use remaining. Interestingly, when the National Park Service gets involved, which is not unlikely for the Perkiomen Trail, the trail width is continually widened, over not just years, but even generations. In the early days, "willing sellers" are highlighted, but threats of eminent domain and the direct use of eminent domain, as is already taking place along the Perkiomen Trial, are used to widen the area, and even the viewshed becomes regulated by the agency. Gradually the land along a stream like the Perkiomen, and all of the land through and including the railbed that forms the basis for the Perkiomen Trail, become government land. The three parks would expand and expand, and private land along the Perkiomen Creek and in the vicinity would become history.

This is a warning to private property owners to get to work to oppose portions of the trail outside of the currently defined parks and to work to preserve private property along Perkiomen Creek. I'd like to thank Helen Mackewicz for her careful research to send pertinent documents to enable me to comment.

Carol W. LaGrasse
Property Rights Foundation of America

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