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Senator Brent Steele Voices Concerns About Indiana Trails Fund Inc.
Updated December 30, 2015 7:27 AM
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(BEDFORD) - In a letter, Senator Brent Steele addressed to city and county officials expressing concerns when dealing with Hoosier Rails to Trails County and Indiana Trails Fund Inc.

"I realize there may be some of you who may be put off by my statements," Steele wrote. "But I know what I am saying is true. It bears being mentioned on the record. I don't take what I am about to say lightly."

In March 2010, following the abandonment of the railway, the federal Surface Transportation Board issued a Notice of Interim Trail Use, reserving the right of way for future railroad purposes, if needed, and also granted interim use of the land as a public-access trail. The Milwaukee Trail, which will eventually stretch about 20 miles from Bedford to Indian Springs, has become increasingly popular among hikers, bikers and runners.

The greatest portion of the trail is in the county, and not all property owners have embraced it. Commission Bill Spreen has expressed concerns about infringement of property rights in addition to safety and liability issues for the county.

Senator Steele says two of his constituents, Everett and June Patrick at 5784 Williams Road, have a sizeable tract of real estate the borders an abandoned rail bed, and contacted Steele trying to get Hoosier Rails to Trails Council and the Indiana Trails Fund Inc. to do what they were supposed to do under the law.

Back on December 2, 2013, Senator Steele wrote to the Director Cameron F. Clark with the Department of Natural Resources advising him that there were landowners in his district, all of whom are row-crop or cattle farmers in Indian Creek Township, who had come to him with complaints.

Senator Steele advised Clark that Richard Vonnegut, President of Indiana Trails Fund Inc. had been put on notice to build fences required by Indiana Code 8-4.5-6-6.

"Mr Vonnegut had verbally promised landowner that he would come down and look at things, all to no avail," Steele wrote in his letter.

Senator Steele then received a letter on December 16, 22013 from Steve Morris, Director of the Division of Outdoor Recreation with DNR to Richard Vonnegut in which Director Morris tells Mr. Vonnegut:

"It has recently come to our attention that this fencing provision could apply to your trail. In the sense of being a good neighbor and positive vehicle in trail development for all Hoosiers, we feel it is essential that you work with landowners along the trail to install fencing as needed and requested."

On March 24, 2014, Steele wrote Vonnegut, putting him on notice to build the fence required by state statue. He also sent a copy of that letter to the Director of DNR.

The gist of the letter was:

"My constituents expect you to follow the law and they expect those in administrative offices to uphold and enforce the law. I reminded him that the statue requires that he put money in escrow to build the fence or the DNR Could revoke his permit for the trail."

On April 1, 2014, Attorney James C. Tucker sent a certified letter to Vonnegut pointing out that a fence must be erected and maintained between the recreational trail and the property owner's property. Tucker also informed Vonnegut that the Railroad Right-of-Way Rails-to-Trails License between the Indiana Trails Fund Inc. and the Indiana Rail Road Company dated Sept. 16, 2011 provides that the license may be terminated for failure to maintain the trail in accordance with the standards set forth by the state of Indiana.

On April 14, 2014, Senator Steele sent a letter to the Lawrence County Commissioner with a copy of Tucker's letter. Senator Steele also expressed the fact that it was not just the citizens of Lawrence County who were having trouble with Vonnegut.

"I received a letter dated May 21, 2014 from Director Clark who stated that there is no permit and nothing could be revoked," Senator Steele wrote. "He did state that he had talked to Vonnegut and Vonnegut said he was aware of the requirements of fencing under Title * and he intended to work with the landowners."

However that has not happened.

"I won't bore you with more of this story but it goes on and on without relief," he added.

Steele says of most importance is the Order on Summary Judgement issued in Lawrence Circuit Court Cause No. 47C01-1411-PL-001766, Carlon James Courtright, Abydel Farms, LLS et al. vs. Indiana Trails Fund Inc. and the Indiana Rail Road Company dated November 30, 2015.

"You will see how neighborly the Indiana Trails Fund was," Senator Steele wrote. "They had to be dragged to court. The court found that both Indiana Trails Fund Inc and Indiana Rail Road Company have to comply with the law."

Special Judge Elizabeth A. Cure ruled that the section of law is one designed for the safety of property owners adjacent to a railroad corridor and the Court is persuaded to read this section as written and ordered the groups to build the fences and comply with the law.

"I think it is safe to say there are several dozen, good, honest hardworking taxpayers from Martin, Lawrence and Orange counties who expect the Trails to do what the law requires and they expect the law to be followed," Senator Steele wrote. "They expect everybody involved to hold the Trails accountable."

Senator Steele warned both city and county officials that before they deal with Indiana Trails Fund Inc. and Indiana Rail Road Company.

"Please see that before you deal with these people in good faith that you require them to show they have dealt with the citizens along the trail with good faith and are in fact complying with the law," Senator Steele warned.

As a result of the master plan announced to create a bike trail connecting Mitchell, Bedford and Oolitic,74 affected property owners along the railroad beds have created a group called Save Taxes and S.T.O.P Our Property. Tug Beal, one of the organizers says the group has meet and has sent a letter to the Surface Transportation Board in Washington D.C. about their opposition to any petitions to establish trails on the abandoned railroad beds along their properties.

"They're looking to expand in several areas on county maps," said Beal. "A lot of us living here are going to be affected. We can't stand by, something needs to be done. We have requested return notifications of any said petitions and related public comments and or filings deadlines."

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