When Tracy Presnell moved into his rural McPherson County home more than 30 years ago, he never imagined he’d be fighting to keep people off his property.

But as efforts have been made to create a recreational trail along an inactive railroad right-of-way that cuts into his land, that’s exactly what he’s been doing.

“I don’t want a sidewalk in my backyard,” Presnell says matter-of-factly when explaining his opposition to the national movement known as “rails-to-trails.”

Presnell is one of many property owners against the implementation of the trail, land for which was secured thanks to the National Trails System Act of 1983 that established the process known as “railbanking.” It allows rail companies to temporarily transfer ownership of a railroad right-of-way to another entity for the purpose of converting the corridor into a non-motorized trail. The exchange persists until the corridor is needed again for rail service.

But property owners in Kansas and across the nation contend that land should be returned to them.

Objections

The trail Presnell opposes spans about 12 miles from McPherson to Lindsborg. Built on a corridor formerly operated by the Union Pacific railroad, the Meadowlark Trail was railbanked in 1997 by the Central Kansas Conservancy, which also is attempting to construct a rail trail from McPherson to Marion.

With about 400 to 500 feet of his land occupied by the right-of-way, Presnell estimates he’s the “smallest landowner of all” among opponents of the project. But he’s no less determined to see the trail disappear.

Those who own property along the trail route have different reasons for their dislike of its presence.

Depending on whom you ask, Presnell said, some are concerned the public access could result in vandalism, while others envision an increase in litter. More fear that liability issues could arise if someone were to wander off the trail and develop an injury on their property. Others, like him, don’t want to share their land with strangers.

Landowners also fear that the rise in people using the land will spur an equal increase in crime, namely vandalism. Some also worry the rail corridors won’t be maintained as well under new ownership.

Ruth Holiday, owner of Bicycle Pedaler in Wichita and secretary of the rail trails organization Prairie Travelers, said those concerns often do not materialize.

Holiday, whose group oversees the Prairie Sunset Trail, between Wichita and Garden Plain, said members hold a monthly work day to perform maintenance, weed and pick up trash.

“We have fun. It’s a good group,” Holiday said. “We’re just temporary custodians.”

Holiday said she initially saw such opposition for Prairie Sunset. But she said some of those who most vocally expressed their displeasure at the trail’s presence have since become its most active users.

David Toland, executive director of the eastern Kansas community development organization Thrive Allen County, said the region’s Prairie Spirit Trail still gets pushback from landowners, but not to the degree seen a decade ago when it was being built.

“Trail users tend not to be the type of people to engage in vandalism or mess with people’s cattle,” Toland said.

Other opponents

Landowners aren’t alone in their fight. Creation of rail trails through the process of railbanking has drawn challenges from farm and property rights groups, including the American and Kansas Farm Bureaus.

The AFB and KFB both list support for the repeal of the National Trails System Act among their 2015 policy resolutions.

“That basically took the landowners’ rights away,” said Mike Irvin, director of the KFB Legal Foundation.

In many cases, original agreements made decades ago between landowners and rail companies were written to allow the rights-of-way to revert to private ownership when a railroad no longer was needed, Irvin said. Such arrangements fell into common law. But the 1983 act changed the rules.

“Right-of-way which is abandoned or where service is discontinued should promptly revert to the adjacent landowners,” the Kansas Farm Bureau resolution states. “We oppose the use of federal or state tax revenues for development, enhancement or maintenance of rail banked rights-of-way or tail amenities. Returning corridors no longer used for rail service to the underlying landowner is a top priority.”

Also supported in the resolutions of both farm entities is compensation for individuals whose land has been converted for public recreational purposes.

Court rulings

Opponents have seen some success challenging the railbanking practice in the courts.

Two Kansas City attorneys in May 2014 received a $141 million settlement on behalf of 253 landowners in Washington state who claimed the federal government didn’t provide adequate compensation for the easements on their land. The amount, reported in the Kansas City Business Journal, could be the largest in rails-to-trails settlement history.

In March 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Wyoming case that former rail space used for trails must revert to landowners. But that ruling won’t affect the situation in McPherson County, Presnell said, because it only applies to rights-of-way granted by the federal government, rather than railroad companies.

In Kansas, legal objections by property owners have centered on claims of noncompliance with the Kansas Statutes regulating the construction of recreational trails.

Ronn Peters, a member and past president of the Central Kansas Conservancy, said the group adheres strictly to the rules, which require installation of fencing, maintenance of the trail bed, litter prevention, purchase of liability insurance and establishment of a bond with the county.

The Miami County Board of Commissioners challenged the bond portion several years ago, taking the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy to court over the amount of bond. The KRTC argued it was exempt from having to pay because the federal trails act supersedes state authority. But the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that both could coexist and a bond or escrow account must be established.

State law also says development of a recreational trail must be completed within two years, yet Presnell notes the Meadowlark has been under construction for much longer.

“They’re still out here trying to build a trail 16 years later,” he said.

Other issues

Presnell has other critiques of the Meadowlark project. He questions the location of the trailhead in McPherson – near the intersection of Moccasin Road and Old U.S. 81.

“It’s so inconvenient to get to the stupid thing,” he said. “People aren’t going to go out and cross a 55-mile-per-hour highway with their children.”

Presnell said he also hasn’t witnessed a noticeable demand for the Meadowlark or other rail trails, which he has made an effort to visit so he can observe their use.

He has also made excursions to Texas, Colorado and Missouri, home to the Katy Trail: the longest rail trail in the nation and one often viewed as the crown jewel of the rails-to-trails movement.

“The one thing I couldn’t find on any of these was somebody actually using them,” Presnell said.

Landowners are on the hook for the property taxes on the land within the rights-of-way. Presnell is disgruntled about paying to accommodate an amenity that he sees as having such little interest.

“You took these people’s property, you went in and built this thing, and there’s nobody using it,” he said.

Presnell hasn’t yet taken any legal steps to block the trail, and there are no ongoing lawsuits associated with it.

But no matter how the trail evolves, Presnell said he still wouldn’t be comfortable with its presence on his land.

“The only thing they can do,” he said, “is go away.”