Trail extension might be on CSX property, company says


A piece of the hotly debated $1.5 million extension of the Grist Mill Trail in Patapsco Valley State Park may be illegally located on land owned by railroad giant CSX Corp., a company official said yesterday.

Representatives from CSX met with state Department of Natural Resources officials yesterday to discuss the potential problem.

The state Department of Natural Resources will investigate, John Surrick, a DNR spokesman, said after the meeting at CSX offices in Catonsville.

"We are going to work with them to determine where their property line is," Surrick said.

"We have known all along that CSX has owned property along rail lines," he added. "For years, we have been in discussion about the alignment of this trail."

But CSX officials said they did not become aware that the trail was being built near an active rail line until recently.

"We have an interest to decipher the facts, and then we'll decide" what to do, said Stephen C. Thienel, CXS's regional vice president for state relations. "We expect to be compensated for any property they use."

Construction on the trail, which is between an active CSX railroad line and the banks of the Patapsco River, began last fall but was suspended weeks ago because of weather conditions.

The 1.25-mile extension starts at an existing trail near the Swinging Bridge and follows the river's edge closely paralleling the railroad for nearly a half-mile until the trail and the river angle west.

The former B&O; Railroad purchased a long narrow strip of land totaling nearly 2 acres between the railroad right-of-way and the river in 1901, Thienel said.

The new trail appears to run on that land, but DNR officials are questioning whether the bank of the river is in the same place as it was on the 100-year- old maps marking the purchase, he said.

"The question is, is there now room between the edge of our parcel and the river," Thienel said.

CSX officials and DNR have had "informal conferences" in the past about the trail project, Thienel said. However, the company "had gotten assurances that it wasn't going to affect us in any way," he said.

In addition to compensation, Thienel said, the company is concerned about the possibility of increasing the proximity of hikers and bikers to active railroad tracks.

"Clearly it's a safety issue. If they're going to be close to the railroad tracks, we want some precautions taken," he said. "Trains have loose material on them that could fall off" and strike pedestrians or bicyclists in the area.

The 1.25-mile extension of the Grist Mill Trail, authorized by the state Board of Public Works last year, has been fiercely debated since it was suggested in 2001.

Proponents of the trail have lauded its accessibility for bicyclists and handicapped patrons. But some environmental activists worry that a paved surface close to the river's edge will contribute to erosion and act as a barrier to wildlife.

Residents in neighboring communities of Oella, Relay and St. Denis, as well as Ellicott City, have also raised objections, concerned about increased traffic into their communities and the effect on the park's protected lands.

A Sierra Club task force on the trail agreed last fall not to legally challenge the trail's construction in an agreement with the DNR that included a promise by the state agency not to build additional paved paths through the park.

The state has had an agreement with CSX for the past 50 years to use nine properties, including an abandoned rail line in Patapsco Valley State Park, said Neal Welch, project coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources, which manages the park.

"We feel we have complied with every part of that agreement," Welch said.

However, it is unclear whether that agreement applies in this situation, said Heather Lynch, a DNR spokeswoman.

In October, it was discovered that a staging area for construction of a bridge to carry the trail ridge across the Patapsco River included a tiny strip of property owned by Michael A. Nibali, an Ellicott City resident. DNR changed the project to avoid using his land after he asked them for compensation.

Surrick said ownership is a question in all of DNR's efforts throughout the state.

"In many cases, you're looking at transactions that took place many, many, many years ago," he said.

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