Work to resume on trail to Howard Co.

Despite CSX dispute, state says it has adequate land

April 29, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Construction of a hotly contested extension of the Grist Mill Trail in Patapsco Valley State Park to Howard County will resume soon, Department of Natural Resources officials said yesterday, despite continuing concerns about ownership of a portion of the trail by CSX, which operates a rail line in the area.

Work on the trail was suspended last winter because of weather concerns. In February, local representatives of CSX told DNR officials that they believed a portion of the trail along the Patapsco River was planned for property that belonged to the railroad.

The state and CSX have since researched the ownership history of the land and have arrived at two sharply conflicting conclusions. DNR says that its research indicates that the state owns the land where the trail would be built. But CSX officials say their records show that CSX owns it.

CSX is continuing to research property boundaries in the area of the trail with the hope of proving it owns the property. If CSX proves ownership of the land, the company will "consider its options," said Stephen C. Thienel, regional vice president of state relations for CSX.

But DNR officials said work on the $1.5 million project to extend the paved trail more than a mile to the Howard County border will resume as soon as the Department of General Services resolves a contract dispute with the builder of the trail, said Gene Piotrowski, the department's director of resource planning.

"We had been moving forward all along because we felt we had adequate information and right," he said. "We felt we had enough land to put that trail down."

CSX holds a handwritten deed dating to 1901 that shows that the company owns about 1,000 feet along the riverbank where the trail extension is being built, parallel to its active line. The land was part of property left from the construction of the Ilchester railroad tunnel.

"We would hope to resolve the issue of who has superior ownership before they lay asphalt," said Thienel.

But DNR's deeds indicate that the state owns the property in question, Piotrowski said.

"There may be some overlapping ownership," he acknowledged. But he said, "We have at least an understanding" with CSX that it can be worked out.

Piotrowski said that engineers believe construction can be complete in September. Most of the rough clearing for the trail has been finished, he said. Final grading, construction of a retaining wall and paving remain.

He was not sure whether the trail would open this fall, however.

"We want to be sure it's a quality amenity for the public before we open it," Piotrowski said.

The trail extension was authorized by the state Board of Public Works last year, but it has been fiercely debated since it was proposed in 2001.

Proponents of the trail have lauded its accessibility to bicyclists and disabled patrons. But the Howard County chapter of the Sierra Club and other environmental activists worry that a paved surface close to the river's edge would contribute to erosion and repel wildlife.

Residents in neighboring communities of Oella, Relay, St. Denis and Ellicott City also have raised concerns about increased traffic into their communities.

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