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Neillsville Improvement Corporation President Talks Rails-to-Trails Project, Informational Meeting this Thursday
Monday, April 15th, 2019 -- 2:24 pm
Posted by Riley Hebert-News Director

-The Neillsville Improvement Corporation has undertaken a large project to benefit Neillsville and Clark County with the Rails to Trails Project.

I spoke with Dan Clough, the President of the Neillsville Improvement Corporation, or NIC, and he explained the project in more detail and how NIC got involved.

“The corridor from Marshfield to Granton to Chili had been a railroad to 1880 to 1980. Then in 1980, that land was sold to Xcel Energy. They pulled the rails up, decommissioned it as a railroad and Xcel Energy put a powerline corridor down. The railroad west of Neillsville and east of Chili was sold off to all the local farmers. Even at that time, in 1980, there was talk about putting a trail in under the wires. For various reasons, that didn’t happen. Over the years, that got talked about several times, but always fell by the wayside for various reasons. It got talked about again six or eight years ago by another group and, for various reasons, that project fell by the wayside.”

“Now, let me backup a minute. In 1993, the DNR started a process to create a State Trails Network Plan. And, in 2003, they published the results of that plan, a plan of a network of trails across the whole state. In 2013, the City of Neillsville created their 20-year, long-range plan and this trail was included in that. In 2016, the county included this trail in their recreation plan. So, the talk about this has been around for decades.”

“In 2014, NIC has a series of six public meetings to create a list of projects to help economic development for the city. This trails project came up on the top of the list. Everyone thought this was a great idea, so NIC started working on this project in a serious way in 2014.”

From there, Dan explained what NIC did to begin the project.

“The first several years of that was a feasibility study. Was this project even feasible to do? Could we get from here to there? Is there money available to make this happen? Where would the money be? Who are the owners of this? What easements do they have? What leases do they have? All of that was researched during the feasibility study phase. It was found out that in the entire 13 miles, there were only two easements and only six landowners with leases. And those leases can be cancelled within 30 days by either party. So, basically, we only had two easements to work with. And even the landowners who had leases were not active farm land.”

“So, in our planning, we found ways to go around the very few active fields. Most of this was not agriculture. It was by the sides of fields and through the woods. So, we decided that, yes, this is a feasible project and we went into the planning stage. So, we went into the planning stage and started talking to the landowners. We talked to 100% of the landowners of the trail. We did not talk to, necessarily, the landowners’ neighbors and that is where some confusion has come in because people who are neighbors feel that we should have talked to them at that stage. We’re talking to them at this stage, because Xcel Energy owns 98% of the trail. If we didn’t have them on board, we did not have a project.”

“So, we had to make sure we had them on board first and we finally, just recently, got a letter from them, in writing, saying yes we will work with you as a conditional sale pending final negotiations. Those negotiations are ongoing. There’s still a lot of work to be done on this trail. We still have to talk with more landowners. Every landowner had a lease, plus many landowners that don’t have leases. We want to give a lease to them to lock in their ability to cross over their land and go from field to field. Even where there’s active agriculture, we want to not disrupt that active agriculture and go around that field. We need to talk to those landowners now, those adjacent landowners, so that’s the phase we’re in now.”

Dan then explained why NIC is taking on this large project.

“As to why we’re doing this? This would be a huge economic development boon for, not only Neillsville, but also Granton and Chili. With stores closing, jobs getting tight, we need economic development. People keep saying, ‘somebody should do something.’ Well, NIC is trying to do something.”

“There’s still a lot of hoops to jump through. There’s money to raise. There’s leases to sign. Because NIC does not own this yet, I can’t come to a formal agreement with adjacent landowners. And some adjacent landowners have criticized NIC for not having the full plan yet. We’re in the process of creating that. The plan will be better with their help and working together because they can help us identify the issues on their adjacent land, so during our planning phase we can plan signs, fences, barriers, routes if we need to go around something. Any particular thing that they believe particular attention. Now in the planning phase is when to work all that through.”

In order to clear up some of the confusion and stop the spread of misinformation regarding the project, NIC is holding an information meeting on April 18th.

“We’re going to put an informational presentation on. The specific landowners we want to talk with one-on-one because each situation is slightly different, so it’s very difficult to talk in generalities in front of a group. What this informational presentation will be is the general intro of the project, the history of the project, what the project concept it. That it’s a non-motorized recreation trail. That it will be a packed gravel surface. We will try to work with landowners so they have the least disruption. We are more than willing to give out leases to adjacent landowners so they can continue their operation with as little disruption as possible. And that’s the process we’re going through now.”

“We’re continuing to recruit project partners. We’ve been working with the various organizations involved in the state, city and county plans. We’ve been working with them, keeping them updated. We’re going to continue to work with those partners. We’re recruiting other partners including the County Health Department, the Eat Right, Be Fit Coalition and the DNR. We’re trying to sort this all out because this is an enormous project. One of the times I met with the DNR, they thought this was one of the biggest projects and they couldn’t believe how far we’ve come on it on our own.”
“Somebody has to start this project, so NIC started spearheading it by finding out if it was feasible. No money has been spent. No grants have been procured. No leases. No sales. It’s all still in the planning phase right now. We’re basically just moving from the feasibility phase to the planning phase."

Dan then went through some of the concerns they’ve heard from various people.

“Some of the concerns that we’ve heard is a liability concern. So, if somebody leaves the trail and goes on to their land and gets hurt, they’re liable for this. That’s basically not supported by law. There are thousands of bike trails all over the country and they do not have a problem with this. Anyone who leaves the trail is considered a trespasser. Landowners have virtually no liability for trespassers. It would be the same liability they have right now if somebody leaves the road, walks out into their field and gets hurt. It does not increase their liability at all and, as I said, trails that have been in operation for decades have no problem with this.”

“People have talked about hunting, people have talked about many other things and, again, we can talk about trails that go back decades and that hasn’t been a problem. These are legitimate concerns that people have, but we’ve looked into those and many other trails have looked into them and either they’re not a problem or there are ways to mitigate that problem by putting up fences, signs, gates and things like that. There are tools out there to make this virtually no problem on thousands upon thousands of miles of trail.”

“The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, it’s a national group, the figures I got off their website the other day, there are 22,000 miles of old railroad bed that have been turned into bike trails in the United States. There’s no problems. This is not new science. This is not new technology. This is all over the place and it has proven to not be a problem.”

“As to the impact of the project, NIC and any of those governmental groups that wrote those plans, wrote this project into their plans because they all see it as a huge economic development for, basically, the entire south end of the county. So, there’s all kinds of pluses for this. It will help the quality of life for our residents. It will help with recruitment for both companies and potential employees, potential residents because if the quality of life here is better, then they’re more likely to stay here, they’re more like to move here, companies are more likely to locate here because they’ll be able to attract better employees. To me it’s both a community development and economic development project.”

The NIC group has also been accused of doing this project behind the scenes and not talking with landowners about it. However, that just isn’t the case.

“Every single one of our meetings has been public. It has been talked about in many other public meetings. As I said, NIC had six public meetings to create the list that this project showed up on. NIC didn’t come up with it in a vacuum. And, as I said, people have been talking about this for decades. The DNR has this on a plan that was published in 2003.”

“For that reason, because it’s supported by so many things, there is money available for this type of thing. For acquisition of the property and the trail building. We want to create a good thing here and there are many people who want to get in on creating a good thing.”

“There are some people who are critical of it. I hope to sit down with them and talk through their issues. Most of the issues that I have heard expressed have already been researched and answered and they aren’t as big an issue as being presented. This has not been done in secret and there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done on this. This is a work in progress. This could still fall through. Nothing is dyed in the wool. I would really hate for it to fall through because it would be a huge loss for all three communities and the county.”

Dan ended out interview by encouraging people to come to the informational meeting on the 18th.

“I would invite everybody to come on the 18th. Find out what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it, the research we’ve done and the answers we’ve found. And as I said, individual adjacent landowners, individuals with leases and easements, we’re going to try and talk with them individually because we want to give leases out to people. Comparable leases to the ones that are in place. There are other people who, right now, are using the land without a lease, with an easement, without permission. Some of them unknowingly. And getting a lease from us, will then protect them legally and lock their rights in place. So, I think it’s better to work with us and then we can solve this problem together.

Once again, the Rails to Trails Informational Presentation is being held April 18th beginning at 6:30pm. The public is welcome to attend.

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