Last night marked the beginning of a new phase for proponents of the Mountain To Seat Trail (MST) in Orange County. After several years of silence, the Orange County Department of Environment, Agriculture, Parks and Recreation (DEAPR) held a meeting at the Cane Creek Community Center on Orange Grove road, inviting all landowners touched by the "planning corridor" from Occoneechee Mountain to the Haw River, mostly following Cane Creek from its headwaters to the Haw River confluence. Around 275 people were invited and around 75 were in attendance.
See the planning corridor map here: http://www.orangecountync.gov/document_center/DEAPR/MST_thru_Orange_Co.pdf
DEAPR opened the meeting with what amounted to a sales pitch for the trail system. Many folks attending, tho, were already engaged well beyond a generic sales pitches and wanted to address specific issues - issues DEAPR was not prepared to address. The meeting devolved quickly with some attendees reading prepared speeches, many asking pointed questions, and a general air of distrust took over the meeting. There were emotional appeals and a bit of fear mongering from some of the more vocal opponents, but some valid and important points made and questions raised, too. Perhaps more importantly, no landowner stood up to praise the MST and try to persuade folks to listen with an open mind.
As the meeting began to break up my father said to me "that was almost as bad as when OWASA came here to tell folks about their wonderful plan for a reservoir on Cane Creek". He was right. I remember that meeting, held in this same Community Center when I was a young teen. It galvanized a loose knit community, uniting them against County leadership and OWASA.
Its no surprise that OWASA is also a key player in the MST debate. The planning corridor was drawn as it was to try to leverage public property and avoid issues with hundreds of different easements with hundreds of different landowners. OWASA's land along the West bank of the Cane Creek Reservoir was a natural target. What was surprising was the complete lack of OWASA input in last night's meeting. Where is OWASA? At a meeting where impacted landowners were invited to learn about the MST, why was the largest landowner silent and absent?
I am an MST proponent and have offered to open up close to a mile of trails to MST. But, not if it negatively impacts my neighbors and not if the overall sighting and easement process isn't transparent. Orange County DEAPR and OWASA can go a a long way to making this happen with a few simple guidelines
- As the largest landowner and one specifically charged with protecting water supply, OWASA has to announce a position. Will they allow MST on their property? Within what guidelines? Orange County and OWASA need to *lead* here, not follow. This entire exercise is futile if OWASA will not host the MST.
- Landowners should be encouraged to engage with their neighbors. Those considering hosting MST should agree to *not* route the trail right along the property line of a neighbor who objects. Self-impose a set-back from the property line in the name of being a good neighbor (100 feet?). OWASA should set the precedent here and lead by example.
- Trail heads are far more problematic than trails. Enforce a large buffer around any trail head to ensure neighbors are not negatively impacted. Some have proposed a trail head on Apple Mill rd, but clearly have not walked the area. A trail head there would be a catastrophic change to this bucolic rural cul-de-sac. A far more appropriate trail head would use the OWASA parcel on Bradshaw Quarry rd where there is long road frontage on an already busy road and few neighbors to impact.
- Establish a series of meetings *with published agendas* to go over specific topics such as duty of care/liability issues, trail size needs (wide enough for an EMS ATV?), experiences of MST landowner hosts in other parts of the state, etc... Invite experts to talk and invite landowners to ask questions. Transparency is critical to the process.
As it is, in the absence of leadership today, the vacuum is being filled with fear and mistrust. If a vote were taken today just among landowners in the planning corridor the result would be a landslide against the MST. That would change with the above points addressed.