City asked to help expand bike trails at high school

BUCKHANNON — A group of local volunteers has asked the City of Buckhannon to help blaze a new trail — quite literally — near the Upshur County Recreation Park.

Buckhannon City Council on Thursday approved a proposal to apply to St. Louis, Missouri-based Arch Coal for permission to lease land the company and its subsidiaries own adjacent to the recreation park. The group, led by local attorney Nathan Fetty, wants to develop about 10 additional miles of non-motorized trails for recreational use. It consequently crafted a two-part proposal on behalf of the city to submit to Arch Coal.

Earlier this year, Fetty and the volunteers established a 5-mile loop of trails within the recreation complex suitable for hiking, mountain biking and running. The aim of establishing the trails — information about which can be found by searching for “Upshur County Trails” on Facebook — is to provide more accessible recreation opportunities for local residents. The first part of the proposal discusses the city’s desire to extend the current Riverwalk Trail near West Virginia Wesleyan College to the county park/Buckhannon-Upshur High School and “upriver of the county park and high school should the funds and cooperation of upriver landowners come to fruition.”

The second part seeks permission from Arch Coal for the city to lease lands owned by the company to develop an approximate 10-mile network of trails, estimated to be about 5 feet wide with an earthen and limited gravel/rock base.

“We’re all very much aware of how fantastic Upshur County is and how fantastic outdoor opportunities in Upshur County are,” Fetty said, plugging the need for more trails, “but what we’re lacking is the access for the general public to be able to go out and enjoy those kinds of amenities, so what we’re here to ask council for is help with a potential opportunity to expand onto the adjacent property, to allow us to be able to continue to build trails on a couple different levels.”

The group wants to connect the end of the Riverwalk Trail at Marion Street to the area behind the high school and ultimately to a brand new network of trails next to the county recreation park.

Fetty, a managing attorney at WVU College of Law who specializes in sustainable land development, said he’d established contact with Arch Coal’s counsel through his role at WVU. He presented a written proposal to council, which he said had been drafted on the city’s behalf, asking for permission from Arch Coal to scout out their land for trail-building purposes. Fetty and the group specifically asked Mayor David McCauley, who indicated he had been working on the proposal with Fetty, to sign off on the proposal so it could be sent to Arch Coal.

“Let me be clear — Arch Coal hasn’t agreed to anything,” Fetty said, “and at this point, the city certainly hasn’t agreed to anything either. But what we’re trying to do is put on paper a vision for what it is that we would like to see on this adjacent property to expand on these efforts and continue building on this really great energy that we have going with these trails.”

Fetty said the city’s involvement is crucial to the success of the proposed project.

“We need an entity like the city because we’re just a volunteer group … we need an entity like the city to be the holder of whatever sort of formalized legal agreement we would make with Arch Coal of we can get that far,” Fetty explained. “I want to emphasize that we’re not there yet, that nobody has committed to anything.”

Fetty mentioned “a couple of caveats” to any proposed agreement.

“We would need some sort of indemnity that the city would provide for certain liabilities that would arise [as a result of the use] by the general public,” Fetty said. “And the other is that the establishment of these trails would be subordinate to and subject to any future mining activity that may happen on that property.”

Saying he wasn’t sure what the chances were of future mining taking place on the land, Fetty emphasized that he wasn’t asking the city to obtain ownership of the land from Arch. 

“We’re not talking about transferring ownership here, we’re not talking about any kind of outlaying of money on behalf of the city, what we’re really talking about is understanding that there are those kinds of risks in terms of future use of the property that we might not be able to control,” Fetty said.

The first step is to partner with Arch Coal land managers in an effort to scope out the area and see what’s possible, Fetty said.

“We would then come back to you all once we have a better sense of that to be able to articulate a more concrete vision,” he said. “I just think these trails make Upshur County an even more livable place, allows us to attract and retain talent, and I’m talking about more than just tourism. I’m talking about an amenity that is going to attract and retain demographics of people that we want.”

Councilman David Thomas called the proposal “a great idea” and “very visionary.”

McCauley clarified that Fetty was simply asking council’s permission for him to sign the proposal, which he said was simply an application to Arch Coal.

Thomas made a motion to approve the proposal, which was seconded by councilwoman Pam Cuppari.

However, city attorney Tom O’Neill raised a question about the county’s involvement prior to council voting on the proposal.

“With respect to the county commission’s involvement, what kind of interest did they show? The question I have from a legal perspective is the precedent, or is there one, for the city owning essentially a recreational easement that’s outside of municipal boundaries?” O’Neill asked.

The Upshur County Recreation Complex is located beside Buckhannon-Upshur High School, well outside city limits, which end just past GoMart.

McCauley said up until two years prior, half of the city’s total property ownings were outside city limits.

“We have hundreds and hundreds of acres that are outside of city limits,” McCauley said.

O’Neill replied, “I just would raise a flag of caution about this indemnification question, which is a huge issue, especially with the kind of use that’s being foreseen. I’d be careful about opening the city up to the potential for having to cover Arch’s legal expenses and potential judgment if somebody were to get seriously injured using this.”

McCauley said those questions were preliminary.

“We’ve got a long way to go before we start putting the pencil to those kinds of terms,” the mayor said. “On a scale of 1 to 10 on the excitement meter, this is an 11.”

O’Neill wanted to know if the county commission was going to sign off on the proposal or any similar kind of agreement, to which Fetty replied, “I don’t think so.”

On Sunday, county commissioner Sam Nolte said he had no official comment about the county’s lack of involvement in the proposal but would look into the question.

McCauley asked council to vote on the proposal, which passed unanimously.

McCauley told The Record Delta that the costs to develop and maintain the walk and bike trails are hard to predict at such a preliminary stage.

“Naturally, we’d look toward grant funding as we have with previous trail segments,” McCauley said.

“Maintenance costs are really nominal, especially when compared to the rewards. Our streets and parks department is very capable of effectively managing any trail extensions.”


More In Local News