Appalachian Trail route runs into stiff opposition Homeowners resist selling their land

December 15, 1991|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

SMITHBURG — SMITHSBURG -- Danny Yonkers reads the newspaper accounts of gloom and doom in government -- cutbacks, layoffs and deficits.

So why, he wondered, would state and federal government officials consider buying some of his land to move a stretch of the Appalachian Trail running through Washington County to appease some hikers?

"If the state is in such a deficit right now, why does it want to waste good money on this?" Mr. Yonkers asked. "It's a waste of taxpayers' dollars."

Mr. Yonkers is one of 10 property owners who have a view that hikers want. Those property owners could be forced to sell parts of their land -- but not their homes -- in one of several routes under study by state Department of Natural Resources officials and the National Park Service.

More than 100 people attended a DNR public hearing last month. Many were landowners vehemently opposed to the route preferred by some trail supporters, which is the highest path of those being considered.

Residents not only protested the idea of taking pieces of their properties, but also pointed out problems with the route, the most significant one being that it crosses Route 77 at a dangerous part of the road.

As a result of the public hearing, DNR officials have gone back to consider several alternatives, including one proposed by residents that would pass through land owned by the state and the city of Hagerstown and not affect any private property owners.

"We have gone back to reassess the ridge-line route and figure out what other routes might be feasible," said Mark Spencer, DNR planner. "We want to see what can be worked out to get as good a route as possible and to avoid affecting as many landowners as possible."

There are no development plans for any of the proposed sites.

The Appalachian Trail is the longest marked footpath in the world, extending 2,100 miles from Maine to Georgia along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. About 38 miles of the trail pass through Western Maryland, between the town of Pen Mar on the Pennsylvania border to the C&O Canal near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., following the crest of South Mountain.

Of that land, about 32 miles has been protected through land acquisition, with much of the money coming from state open space funds. The goal of the National Park Service, along with officials in each of the states along the trail, has been to ensure the protection of the pathway from development.

The remaining six unprotected miles are scattered throughout the state, with 168 private properties along the way. State officials estimate the cost to acquire those lands at $7 million. The state and federal governments would split the burden.

The largest section of land is a 2.2-mile portion running near Smithsburg and crossing Route 77, and that is the part now under consideration. Mr. Spencer said he did not know how much it would cost to acquire that land.

The state prepared a protection plan in January identifying the route as the preferred path of the Maryland Management Committee, a coalition of interests consisting of representatives of the DNR, the

Appalachian Trail Conference, the National Park Service and several state hiking clubs.

But that support eroded after the committee heard from residents like Michael Jacques, who could lose some of the rural South Mountain land that attracted him to the scenic point 15 years ago.

"I want to hold on to my land," Mr. Jacques said. "I just added an addition to my home, and the trail would go right by it."

The proximity of the addition to the proposed route is the point of contention that resulted in the study to move the trail from its current route. Trail supporters want a 500-foot buffer from homes or other man-made structures on either side of the trail.

"The existing route does come close to a number of homes, and in order to get a protected corridor around it, you are talking about possibly acquiring a number of homes," said David Startzell, director of the Appalachian Trail Conference, a non-profit association based in Harpers Ferry that promotes and helps maintain the trail.

After hearing from residents, Mr. Startzell said he has some reservations about what had been the preferred route.

TTC "The route itself may be a nicer route, with higher ground and more views, but it still suffers from having to pass pretty close to a number of homes," he said.

Mr. Spencer said the plans do not include the taking of any homes. He acknowledged that spending money on this project during difficult budget times "is certainly a good question."

Funding for the endeavor is uncertain because of the state's budget crisis. DNR no longer has open space funds available for land acquisition and is still awaiting funds from state bond sales this year earmarked for land deals, he said.

"But I would still like to move forward with the plan," he said. "I would like to have the matter resolved so if funds become available in the future, we could act on it."

Resolving the matter could prove more difficult than coming up with the money. "It's an age-old conflict of how to protect the trail clashing with the rights of property owners who are unwilling sellers," Mr. Spencer said.

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