By Dave DeLuca
Benton County spent just under half of a million dollars purchasing the Bailey Branch rail line corridor with hopes of one day bringing freight and passenger rail traffic back to the area. However, even the most optimistic time frame for such an event is two decades distant. The public was invited to two town hall meetings recently to discuss options for the land in the meantime.
The first of the meetings took place in the City of Monroe’s new library. Despite strong and contrary opinions on the best plan for the future of the land, most commenters were polite and amicable.
“Everybody was respectful. They said their piece. Overall it was civil,” said Rick Osborn, Benton County Public Information Officer.
The second meeting was at the Corvallis Library. Sue Disciple respectfully moderated as audience members addressed county commissioners Annabelle Jaramillo and Linda Modrell. Close to 90 members of the community attended the forum, and were asked to fill out a survey which offered five potential options for land use.
Railroad Use Only: Preserve and manage the corridor, as determined necessary and feasible, to allow for future restoration of freight, passenger, or excursion rail.
Develop Trails: Develop and manage walking, biking, or riding trails within the highest priority locations of the corridor.
Maintain Current Conditions and Uses: Complete minimal maintenance and existing public uses within the corridor.
Transfer of Corridor Location: Exchange the railroad corridor land ownership with private landowners, for equal land that is in closer proximity to the current public right-of-way.
Selling, Leasing, Granting Easements and Authorizing Work: Evaluate and complete sales or agreements where requested by adjacent landowners and other organizations.
After a few short remarks by officials, 26 Benton County residents spoke for three minutes each. Despite having five available choices, most of the speakers focused on whether or not trail development was wise.
The majority of the speakers were farmers, many of whom are directly affected by the Bailey Branch corridor bordering or even splitting their land. Most people were opposed to the development of trails, fearing the creation of a homeless traveling corridor. They anticipated graffiti, drugs, and crime. Several of the farmers also suggested that it would be unsafe for bikers and hikers traveling along farmland due to the use of pesticides, fires, heavy machinery, livestock, and even legal hunting. They said that if recreationalists were to become injured, emergency vehicles may have difficulty accessing the area. Lastly, the several farmers feared hikers and bikers would use their land as a toilet. A strong case was made for Bellfountain Road as a preferable location for trail development.
The minority opinion expressed a desire for trail development along the corridor. Arguments were made that previous rail-trail projects nearly always proved popular among recreationalists and neighboring land owners alike. Bikers, they said, rarely litter and would actually help maintain the land better than if it was left as is.
Perhaps the best suggestion of the night was to attempt to use a combination of solutions. Sections of the corridor could be adopted out to local organizations, building sweat equity and a sense of community inclusion. Meetings could be held with rural neighbors to decrease tension. Instead of a debate over a problem, it was a call for the creative use of imagined possibilities.
One might easily suspect bicycle enthusiasts will be bullish on the proposed trail construction, but that could end in future fights where hikers and bikers defend their potentially bequeathed trail from the railroads.
The public can learn much more about the Bailey Branch Corridor and its management strategy as well as take the survey online at www.co.benton.or.us. A steering committee will present recommendations to the Board of Commissioners once all public input has been collected.