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Defeat for the Mendota Trail

by Lewis Loflin

Announcement: The Mendota Trail land-theft has been stopped. Bristol Virginia leaders plan to file a motion to "non-suit" its existing lawsuits against a group of Washington County property owners. The cost of battling landowners opposed to the trail in court could cost "hundreds of thousands" of dollars in the next few years. (BHC 2-18-08) This is a rare victory for private property owners opposed to an increasingly dictatorial government.

The Mendota Trail controversy has now entered its eighth year in 2008. Now this dirty backroom deal is in jeopardy as the near bankrupt City of Bristol, Virginia (about $120 million in debt) considers dumping the whole project after spending over $635,000 in legal and engineering fees. But what started out as a backroom deal may go back to back rooms to save it. A lot of startling facts have been recently uncovered in the press.

The Mendota Trail was supposed to cost about $1 million in state/federal grants slated for transportation and economics development, which the Mendota Trail is neither. Due to delays from court battles, to quote BHC (11/27/07);

Originally, the project was expected to total $1 million. The city still can access a $400,000 state transportation enhancement grant to help pay for trail construction, if it funds the $100,000 match...Three federal grants totalling $302,000 are no longer in place, but could be applied for, said Bob Childress, the city's director of parks and recreation. "We had to opt out of those because the feds put a five-year time frame on the state spending that money...The programs are still there and the money is still there, so we would just have to get back in line."

In 2001 I attended the so-called hearing (which they properly called a formality) between City of Bristol, Virginia and the Washington County Planning Commission and I accused them then of conducting this in secret and shutting out local residents from the process. They approved the Mendota Trail of coarse, even though the move would cost Washington County thousands in property taxes and strip residents of their property rights. Truth came out in December 1, 2007. To quote a letter to the editor in the Bristol Herald Courier, "Mendota Trail worth the fight" signed by Powell and Sharon Foster of Bristol, Tennessee revealed the following:

...We lost the fully constructed Trail of the Lonesome Pine along Clinch Mountain. Why? When responsibility for the trail was transferred to the state of Tennessee, state employees were too distant to maintain the excellent relations we, on its local board, had developed with the landowners. A similar problem developed when the former Mendota Trail Committee, on which we were volunteers, kept the project secret from landowners adjoining the right-of-way...

They go on to say they need to form a new committee to try to work with hostile land owners they bypassed the last time, and the need for more outside funding. To quote, "There needs to be an effort to obtain additional outside funding. One source that comes to mind is the Virginia Department of Transportation. They, over the objections of the Mendota Trail Committee, tore down a trestle over a local road. They could rebuild it." This in a County full of unpaved and poorly maintained roads. It happens all the time here.

Who Supports the Trail?

90 percent of residents in Washington and Scott Counties that live along the proposed Mendota Trail oppose the project. Those supporting the project, like Powell and Sharon Foster of Bristol, Tennessee don't live there. In fact virtually none of the proposed Mendota Trail is even in Bristol. They have no funds to maintain it and expect Washington and Scott Counties to patrol it. Some extracts from the Bristol Herald Courier (Outdoor enthusiasts rally in support of Mendota Trail Nov 27, 2007) gives us some clues.
Some outdoors enthusiasts hope to rally support for the embattled Mendota Trail during tonight's City Council meeting. Steve Cheers, of Mountain Sports Ltd. (in Bristol, Virginia), said he has contacted friends and customers in hopes of making the case for continuing development of the proposed hiking and biking trail..."People are going to Damascus and Abingdon every day to ride the [Virginia] Creeper Trail. That benefits gas stations, hotels, restaurants all year round...

Another trail supporter, Oscar Harris of Mendota, said he's also making telephone calls and expects at least 10 of his friends to attend...Harris said the trail would provide a wide range of benefits. "It would bring a lot of eco-tourists who would enjoy our area, ride the trail, enjoy our beautiful trees, rivers and scenery and not destroy or take anything when they leave," Harris said. "I think it would boost the quality of life for people who live in this area."

What isn't here is any input from opponents. Yet if residents of Bristol VA/TN are going to Damascus, the residents along the proposed trail couldn't care less. Mountain Sports Ltd. has a direct economic stake in the deal, for every Oscar Harris, there's nine opponents. So where is the press when it comes to equal time for the Trail opponents?

Biased Press

The Bristol Herald Courier and its staff are biased on this issue. Let me quote some extracts from their editorial "Don't abandon Mendota Trail" November 27,

After an eight-year struggle, Bristol Virginia leaders seem poised to give up on the Mendota Trail project...Such a move wouldn't just be a loss for the city. It would be a blow to trail enthusiasts everywhere. And it would embolden trail opponents, teaching them that unending delays can kill a project just as surely as a court leaders were overly optimistic, but they shouldn't be faulted for the delays.

Blame properly belongs to trail opponents, a small, but outspoken group of people who own land along the proposed path. These folks fear a privacy-invading onslaught of hikers and bikers, but presumably didn't mind living within a stone's throw of a working train track, when the trains were still running. Call us crazy, but we'd prefer hikers to the bone-jarring vibrations and noise that accompany a train's passage. Opposition to rail-to-trail conversions, as these projects are often called, is nothing new...

At one time the Bristol Herald Courier supported individual rights, but no longer does.

But the editorial goes on and on how wonderful the Creeper Trail has been for Damascus. How those opponents finally admitted defeat and live with it. They said, "The town of Damascus experienced an economic rebirth as a result of the trail's popularity. Restaurants, bike shops and small stores have sprung up all over town to serve those who flock to the trail every weekend to ride down from Whitetop Mountain or to simply go for a stroll. Given time, the Mendota Trail, which will run from Bristol Virginia to the Scott County line, has the potential to be just as popular. It would be a boon to the region."

They forget to mentions millions in transportation funds that went into the construction of this trail. This is the so-called "economic development" in this region. So was Clear Creek Golf Course. See Clear Creek Golf Course. Ask for a list of jobs that "trail" created and the explosion in property taxes.

But what about those that live there? Did the Creeper Trail really improve the lives of those along the Trail? Is a seasonal restaurant job, renting bikes, or selling tacos from a roadside stall really a career? What is another retirement community suppose to achieve? Property values have exploded there and finding an affordable place to live while waiting tables is impossible.

The Herald Courier staff are typical liberals that think not in terms of individuals, but in terms of collective benefits (Their own social class) at the expense of lower income individuals. That has been the arrogant view of the wealthier people in Bristol and Abingdon (the county seat in Washington County and the wealthiest community in the region) towards us "hick's" in the country.

And we better be wary of terms such as "eco" often leading to excessive government control and restrictions against property owners. That's not counting an exploding cost of living generated by development that produces only higher taxes and low-end jobs they don't work themselves. Many of those "jobs" are going to illegal aliens entering the region.

In this community there's no liberal or conservative, but who has the money.


Nov. 27 City Council Meeting

Bristol has found itself up against a wall. The city had won an earlier legal victory when Washington County Circuit Judge C. Randall Lowe (in Abingdon) ruled that the former railroad land didn't revert to the original owners. But the ruling also revealed the city doesn't own four parcels, which would have to be purchased or acquired through condemnation. During the hearing Mayor Jim Rector to ask the city attorney, "You mean we went into all of this and we didn't own the property???" The attorney mumbled something, while many in the crowd of snickered at the City Council. About 300 packed the hearing. This was only the start of the fun.

For 30 minutes opponents and backers of the Trail gave their sides. Several City residents demanded to know how they were going to pay for all of this. One speaker asked those supporting the Trail to stand up. I was in the back, we had several police officers present in case trouble broke out. Between 40-50 on the left side stood. At this point I asked "How many of you are Washington County residents?" Over half sat down. At that point I asked how many oppose the Trail. On the opposite side and in the back over 100 stood up. At this point an angry Mayor Rector banged his gavel and said, "the other speaker has the floor."

The City just couldn't afford the Trail and counted on pork-barrel grants to pay for it. That money was being held up by legal fights from property owners the City tried to drive into submission with legal costs. Now it turns out they really didn't own the property, it was going to court again and still no money. Now the real shocker as Mayor Jim Rector said,

"The city has never met with the Washington County Board of Supervisors or the Scott County Board of Supervisors on this issue. As a lot of you - on both sides of the aisle have said - this is in the counties. They are the ones who would have to patrol it. I think we need to sit down and see if they support it."

There was a collective gasp of disbelief. Eight years and $635,000 and Bristol had never consulted Washington or Scott Counties? Now they wanted Washington County to drag their own residents into court so Bristol could condemn their property? When I got up to speak I told the City directly, "I can tell you as a Washington County resident, you will lose!" I got on local channel 5 news the next day. I also demanded to know if this will be an open meeting for the public.

Mayor Rector made it clear the public might attend, but wouldn't be allowed any input on the issue. Washington County Supervisors don't allow public comment on anything without pre-approval. Most real business in Washington County is conducted in closed session where the public is barred and no records are kept.

December 2008 it's over. Perhaps the little people might prevail for once. Quoting a letter write named Ben,

There is also the idea, which Bristol city leaders have, of swaying the Washington County, VA., Board Of Supervisors to forfeit the extra land needed to complete the plans of the city to establish the trail. I don't believe the residents of Washington County would approve of any back-door bargaining by their board leaders to partner up with Bristol city leaders on this, or any other, recreational plan. To put it in simple words, there is just a stigma that Bristol city leaders carry, that Washington County residents do not prefer. We see how they've run the city of Bristol over the past decade and wish not to be a part of any of their inveterate levies.
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