No firm decisions were made after three hours of discussion about the future of the Salt Creek Trail project Thursday night.

But a couple of themes emerged:

1. People like the trail — even those who spoke against the process to build it. They use the three-quarter-mile, paved section between the Brown County YMCA and the Nashville CVS, and they’d like to see more of it.

2. People want opportunities to be involved in decisions that are made about the trail. To that point, Brown County commissioner Diana Biddle pledged to reorganize the Salt Creek Trail Committee of volunteers, which has been meeting sporadically for 15 years. That topic is on the agenda of the Nov. 1 commissioners meeting, which starts at 9 a.m.

A panel of key players spoke before a large group at the Brown County High School cafeteria Oct. 26. Then, residents were able to ask questions, which included the following:

How did INDOT-owned bridges end up coming to Brown County for the trail?

The Indiana Department of Transportation offered a two-section, 400-foot-long, steel truss bridge to public entities when it could no longer be used as part of State Road 46, said Sean Porter with Parsons, an engineering company. Three communities expressed interest, and one of them was Brown County, he said.

Salt Creek Trail Committee member Tom Tuley announced that these bridges would be coming for the trail in a July 2014 story in the Brown County Democrat.

Another interested party was a Clay County community group, which wanted to preserve the bridge — which is on the National Register of Historic Places — where it sits now over the Eel River. But the group had no funding, and the Clay County commissioners were not willing to commit to maintaining the bridge for the next 25 years. So, in August 2015, after public hearings and a published period for public comment, INDOT decided to award the bridge to Brown County for use on the trail.

Dismantling the bridge, refurbishing it for pedestrian use and reinstalling it in two places on the trail will be on INDOT’s dime, said John Davis with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Porter called it “actually a pretty good deal” to get two, 200-foot-long bridge sections installed on a trail at no cost to the community. “This is a windfall for Brown County to have that happen,” he said.

Resident Kyle Birkemeier didn’t agree. He said a petition was passed around the meeting and about 70 people signed it.

He also objected to a group of volunteers — the Salt Creek Trail Committee — making arrangements to get the bridge sections.

On Feb. 18, 2015, then-county commissioners Dave Anderson, Joe Wray and Diana Biddle wrote a letter stating their commitment for the second section of the bridge — the section to go between the school district’s Eagle Park property and a piece of private property, according to a timeline published in the Brazil Times.

Biddle wrote another letter to INDOT expressing the commissioners’ support on Aug. 5, 2015, according to Brown County Democrat archives.

Salt Creek Trail PowerPoint

Can we build a different bridge instead? What would it look like?

Gary and Sheila Oliver, who own a historic home across Salt Creek from the school district’s Eagle Park, are opposed to having a large highway bridge visible from their dining room window and sitting in a corner of their yard, being used by people on the trail.

They’ve been asking the county commissioners for months to stop the bridge from coming there; and they’ve been concerned that INDOT or the commissioners will take legal action to put it there anyway if they don’t agree to financial terms for the use of their land.

This is one reason the League of Women Voters organized a forum about the trail.

“Not one of them sitting up there has to look at that bridge every day,” Gary Oliver said, referring to the panelists.

He’d said at the Oct. 18 commissioners meeting that he might be open to a different kind of bridge.

The Salt Creek Trail Committee has no funding to build another type of bridge, said Bob Kirlin, the former trail committee president, who announced his resignation in a letter to the editor this week. He did not attend the forum.

Any bridge put at this 180-foot-wide creek crossing would have to be large enough to support a motor vehicle, Kirlin said. It also would have to be handicap-accessible.

A new, prefabricated bridge could be put in, said Bob Bronson of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. It would have to be much larger than the new wood-and-cement bridge that was built for the existing Salt Creek Trail leg downtown.

He gave a rough estimate of $1 million to $2 million just to build one new bridge. To finish the state-park-to-YMCA phase of the trail, three bridges would be needed.

Porter said the rusty steel INDOT bridges will not look that way after they’re refurbished.

County resident Susanne Gaudin projected images of how other communities have used historic highway bridges on trails, painted them and dressed them up with lights.

“These aren’t ugly by any means, from my sense of what ‘ugly’ is. We are a community that is very immersed in the arts and in history, and these bridges are a wonderful combination of both,” Gaudin said.

“I don’t want a bridge that’s as tall as my house in my front yard,” Sheila Oliver said after the meeting.

Since the Olivers don’t want the bridge in their yard, can it be moved someplace else?

Gary Oliver wants the bridge moved about 100 yards to the south, onto property owned by Jacque Watson at the RedBarn entertainment venue and RV park.

Watson didn’t attend the meeting but sent a statement that was read by the moderator. She suggested the trail bridge be put closer to the existing State Road 46 bridge, but she wants INDOT to buy all of her land to do it.

Moving the bridge there would be tricky for several reasons, said Parsons engineer Kyle Muellner. For one, they already have a DNR permit to put the bridge at the Olivers’, and pushing it another 100 feet upstream would have a negative impact on the flow of the creek, he said.

If they put it nearer the highway, they’d also likely disturb the wetlands that were built at Eagle Park to replace ones that were disturbed to build the first phase of the trail.

And thirdly, there’s a sanitary sewer line running somewhere between the Olivers’ property line and the existing State Road 46 bridge, and that would be expensive to move, he said.

Could the bridge be used on another phase of the trail instead?

No one the panel gave a flat “no” to using one of the bridges elsewhere on the trail.

But the timing might not work out for when INDOT plans to move them out of Clay County, Davis said. And it’s not known if the INDOT bridge is the right size to make another creek crossing, since engineering for the whole trail hasn’t been completed.

How much is it going to cost the county to maintain these bridges?

Resident Ken Birkemeier held up an INDOT memo that quoted about $500,000 in bridge maintenance costs over 25 years.

Half would be the county’s responsibility; the other half would be on the DNR, since one of the bridge sections is going completely on state park property, said trail committee member Mike Magner. As county highway superintendent, he’s also responsible for county bridge maintenance.

Magner and Porter said the memo Birkemeier was quoting was accurate if the bridges were maintained where they are, over the Eel River on a busy state highway. But if they were moved to a pedestrian trail in Brown County, costs would be significantly lower. It would be much easier for workers to get to them, and they wouldn’t have large vehicles going over them constantly.

Birkemeier asked why, with the trail in development for so long, no one had firmed up the actual costs sooner. “I’ve got to go with this,” he said, holding up the INDOT estimates.

Resident and Brown County Council member Darren Byrd said that whether the county uses this INDOT bridge or builds a new one, it’s going to have to pay for maintenance.

What happens if the county refuses to take the bridges?

Biddle said at past commissioner meetings that if Brown County pulls its commitment, the county could be liable to pay back the money spent on this relocation project.

Porter, from the engineering firm, said the same thing at Thursday’s meeting. He also said it could affect future grant awards to Brown County.

But he added that he was not a lawyer, so he couldn’t be sure what might happen legally if the interlocal agreement between INDOT and Brown County wasn’t upheld.

How are we going to protect children from people with ill intent who might use the trail?

Clara Stanley said she and other parents are concerned about not being able to see children walking in the woods along the creek, where the trail is planned to go. “What if children disappear?” she asked.

Watson’s letter mentioned a fear that pedophiles could camp out along the trail.

The Olivers also have concerns about the safety of children, as do school board members, since the proposed trail runs alongside the school’s cross-country trail in places.

Engineer Alan Hammersly showed how the Salt Creek Trail would be separated from the cross-country trail, with a grassy buffer zone about 15 feet wide. Part of the cross-country trail already is prone to flooding, and some of it is on DNR property, and this would be a good opportunity to fix both, he said.

Trail committee member Doug Baird said in his nearly 40 years of working at the state park, he could remember only one time a person was attacked on a trail. Children sometimes get separated from their parents, but they aren’t in physical danger, he said.

Gaudin said INDOT recorded 50,000 vehicles a day on State Road 46 in Brown County. She said it seemed less safe for children to route the trail along the highway than in the woods.

“There are dangers for everyone, every day who is alive,” said school board member Carol Bowden, speaking as a taxpayer. “If we live in fear of what can happen, we will life a less full and vigorous life.”

Why did people whose land was in the path of the proposed trail not know about these plans until recently?

Planning for the trail started in October 2002. About year later, trail committee members Kirlin, Kevin Allen and Mike Roberts invited “adjacent property owners” to a public forum about “possibly locating part of the proposed trail route near or on your property,” the letter reads. That forum happened Nov. 16, 2003.

The Olivers bought their property in 2004 and didn’t receive that letter, Gary Oliver said.

He said he asked the county commissioners in the fall of 2016 about a rumor of the trail going through his property, but he was told the route was not set in stone.

This summer, the couple received a letter about a bridge permit being issued — which the couple didn’t do anything with because they hadn’t applied for any bridge permit. Then about two weeks later, an INDOT representative visited them and told them INDOT wanted to buy a quarter-acre of their property for the trail.

Since 2002, more than 60 stories have been written in the Brown County Democrat and other newspapers about the trail, said longtime trail committee member Ellen Carter.

The moving of the bridges was discussed in a regular commissioner meeting, said resident Vivian Wolff. “Everyone can go to commissioners’ meetings, and everyone can know what’s going on in our county. … This shouldn’t be a big surprise,” she said.

Resident Libby Zeigler said it would have been more decent to approach the property owners “before you make a commitment that brings us to the point of eminent domain.”

Magner, Carter and Biddle said because federal funding was involved, they couldn’t make “official contact” with landowners in the proposed path. Biddle said it would be “like insider trading” to tip off landowners that they’d eventually be offered money for use of their land. Contact couldn’t be made until the environmental phase was completed, which just happened over the summer.

“I still have this massive feeling that things have been done without proper order,” said Kyle Birkemeier.

Is eminent domain or some other legal action going to be taken to use private property for this trail?

On Oct. 18, two of the three county commissioners voted against using eminent domain to get land for the trail. Those two votes came from Jerry Pittman and Biddle.

But that does not stop INDOT from doing it, the county’s attorney said.

No lawyer was on the panel at the Oct. 26 meeting. “The state has the power of eminent domain, and we really don’t want to go there,” INDOT representative Tony Jones said.

He said INDOT was only there partnering with the county because the county needed the bridges for the trail.

“Again, this is a county project, and I’ll leave it at that,” he said.

Has the school board made any decisions about allowing the use of its Eagle Park land for the trail?

The Brown County school board gave some consent for land use nearly 10 years ago, allowing wetlands to be moved to Eagle Park. But when the board was considering an offer to put part of the bridge at Eagle Park, it was discovered that a land-use easement wasn’t signed for the trail.

Board member Steve Miller Jr. said he’s still not in favor of the proposed location or this particular style of bridge, but he’s in favor of completing the trail.

Bowden said the school board’s lawyer is looking over a document from INDOT and hasn’t decided anything yet.

What about the Snyder Farm land, which is also in the path of the proposed trail?

Farm residents Jenni and Shane Combest were in the audience to hear the new timeline for the middle phase of the trail. By next summer, more design work will be done, and by early 2020, construction bids could be accepted, Magner said.

If the county can’t meet those time frames, some of the millions of dollars the state has earmarked for this trail might be taken away, Magner said.

Shane Combest said his father-in-law, landowner Chuck Snyder, has not given consent.

“Are you going to take eminent domain through our farm, too?” he asked, calling it “the government’s way of legalizing theft.”

Davis said the constitution allows the government to use eminent domain for a public purpose, with payment to the landowner. “We wouldn’t have roads if we didn’t,” he said.

“Roads are a necessity,” Combest said. “The trail is not.”

Davis said he didn’t know what the future held since the commissioners have voted not to use eminent domain.

Jenni Combest said she’d rather see the trail running along State Road 46 in the state’s existing right-of-way than across their farmland. There’s an elevated area above the busy road, by the fence line, that she thought could be used.

Carter, of the trail committee, offered to start fresh with the couple, who also brought up past conversations with various trail representatives.

“It’s not so much that we’re opposed to the trail. What we’re opposed to is how they’ve done it,” Jenni Combest said.

Is it possible that INDOT hasn’t offered the landowners enough money to make them say “yes”?

Watson called the financial offer INDOT had made for a portion of her land “humiliating.” She asked for the entire piece of land to be bought instead, so as not to harm her business. It’s been for sale for several years.

INDOT did not respond to that financial question.

Gary Oliver said it’s not really about the money. He said the couple did counter INDOT’s first offer, and their request included a privacy fence. But then they drove to the Eel River to look at the bridge that could go in their yard, and they withdrew their counteroffer.

“If the bridge can be moved 100 yards to the north (off his property) we say yes to the bridge,” Oliver said, to applause.

Why was at least one trail meeting conducted without public notice or input?

Magner acknowledged that on at least one occasion, he met with county commissioners, engineers and state employees involved in the bridge project at Parkview Church of the Nazarene to discuss the status of this project. He said that as Brown County’s employee in responsible charge of INDOT projects, he is allowed to have progress meetings that don’t have to be advertised.

Resident Amy Kelso — who, as a county commissioner in the early 2000s, signed paperwork to allow the trail to proceed — told the panel that if meetings were conducted outside the Open Door Law, complaints would be filed. If the public access counselor found a violation, any action taken in those meetings would be “null and void. Those actions didn’t happen. That will be a part of this.”

Robyn Rosenberg said it was sad and frustrating that the trail project had come to this point, and embarrassing for Brown County.

“What will it take to stop this, so we can proceed and have something that is beautiful?” she said about the debate. “… What is it going to take to have something positive to come out of Brown County instead of all of this negativity?”

On the panel

  • Landowner Gary Oliver, who doesn’t want a portion of a gifted state highway bridge in his yard for trail users to walk on
  • John Davis with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which is in charge of the part of the trail in Brown County State Park
  • Alan Hammersly, an engineer hired by the county to build this trail section
  • Doug Baird and Ellen Carter, longtime trail committee volunteers
  • Mike Magner, Brown County highway superintendent and a trail committee member
  • Tony Jones with the Indiana Department of Transportation, which is funding part of this project
  • Sean Porter and Kyle Muellner, engineers with Parsons, which is designing this trail section
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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.