Mountains to Sea Trail on OWASA Property

I am copying here my letter to the OWASA Board of Directors regarding the proposal that they host the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) on OWASA property along the West side of the Cane Creek Reservoir. The short answer is that I think they should agree to host it and I expect them to arrive at this same conclusion. The real debate will revolve around what conditions they include with their agreement.

Note that OWASA's approval of hosting MST would not be an endorsement of any proposed trail route. Their agreeing to host the trail does not guarantee that a route along the Cane Creek Reservoir can be worked out. It simply would be an acceptance of the idea of the MST in general, and help set guidelines that other landowners nearby can follow if they would also like to host the trail (full disclosure - I have offered to host nearly a mile of MST on property in the area. While I am a proponent of the trail, I am also a proponent of folks being good neighbors and will not support any trail route that negatively impacts folks living nearby).

June 29, 2016
Dear OWASA Board of Directors,
I had the pleasure of attending your Board meeting on June 23rd this year where one of the topics was the proposal to route the Mountains to Sea trail (MST) through OWASA property along the Cane Creek Reservoir. I spoke briefly during the comment period, but I’d like to offer a few written notes as well.

My father, Ed Johnson, owns 60 acres at the back end of the Cane Creek Reservoir. We are completely in favor of routing the MST on OWASA property and on our property as well. In fact, I’ve been working with Rich Shaw with the County to see if there might be a way to adjust the route towards Hillsborough to allow *more* of the trail to traverse our property. We’ll happily host nearly a mile of the trail if we can make it happen.

Other property owners with land adjacent to OWASA’s property have different opinions, of course. While its true that none of us adjacent property owners have much of a legal right to tell OWASA what it can and cannot do with its property, I think we can all agree that in the interest of doing the right thing with regard to hosting the MST, OWASA should seek to do no harm to its adjacent neighbors. As much as I might prefer OWASA ignore the minority of adjacent NIMBY-ists railing against MST, I think their objections should be addressed and OWASA should only agree to host MST if there is no more than a negligible negative impact on adjacent property owners.

As I see it, your duty of care in deciding to host MST cascades through three levels:

Water security/quality => Adjacent property owners => All Orange County citizens.

Water Security/Quality
The single most important issue is security of the water supply. That is paramount and trumps all other concerns. My gut feeling is there is no impact, as evidenced by hundreds of public reservoirs worldwide hosting public hiking trails with no negative impact. But, I’m not a water supply safety expert – we should leave that to the excellent OWASA staff. If your research shows a real and likely threat, then we’ll all agree that OWASA hosting the MST is a bad idea. If you do determine there is a material risk to the water supply, though, I would ask that you share this widely, as many other water systems have a vested interest in that conclusion.

Adjacent Property Owners
If, however, studies show that there is no material risk to the water supply, then the next tier of consideration needs to be impact to adjacent landowners. As near as I can parse from listening to the few MST meetings I’ve attended and from reading Mr Sylva’s treatise to you, there are three main areas of concern:

  1. Thuggery
  2. Fire
  3. General risk/higher insurance costs

By thuggery I mean criminal behavior of any kind by people using the trail. This covers everything from letting dogs run free, to swimming in the reservoir, to assaulting other hikers, and breaking and entering nearby homes. This is classic “fear of strangers” that everyone has to some degree and is a vestige of our ancient tribal times when outsiders were a very real threat. But, is it rational today with regard to the MST? Probably not. There simply aren’t any statistics I’ve been able to find that show an increase in criminal activity when such a trail is put in place – and there are thousands of miles of these trails in the USA alone. Mr Sylva mentions one anecdotal incident recently in Hillsborough, but fails to offer any details. The reality of that incident is that the victim was walking down the road when he heard calls for help from the woods immediately next to the road and “in the direction of” Occoneechee State Park. When he went to investigate he was robbed of his backpack and laptop at gunpoint. This wasn’t a crime that had anything to do with people using trails at the state park, this was a crime of convenience directly related to easy road access and people walking home from work or school along the road. If this incident truly scares Mr Sylva, I’d suggest he start working to ban roads rather than hiking trails.

Fear-mongering and anecdotes should be ignored here, as should any lay-person’s claims of there being no evidence to suggest higher crime risk – mine included. Luckily, due diligence here is simple: contact the sheriffs of counties where MST runs today and ask if they’ve seen any increase in crime they can attribute to MST. MST maps can easily be found online and sheriffs are generally easy to talk to. If there are problems with other rural sections of the trail, they’ll know about it and will gladly tell you all the details. If an increase in crime is a real problem, people across the state need to know about it now, because there are hundreds of miles of MST in planning stages.

In my mind this is a real threat. And, judging by the reactions I saw on some of the Board members faces when this was brought up, I suspect you feel the same. When forests are cordoned off and left to their own devices they tend to build up a sub-story of dry kindling from fallen limbs and dead trees. That kindling can help fuel a wildfire very quickly. But, does hosting MST increase that risk? That’s doubtful. There would be no overnight camping allowed and hikers simply don’t smoke. The suggestion is that some reckless teenagers will sneak onto the property and start camp fires, but that’s ludicrous. If that were a real problem, it would be happening today. Teenagers don’t need MST, they prefer to make their own trails to their own secret spots and having MST nearby eliminates that secrecy.

But, the risk of fire is still there. In fact, the real risk here is not from the OWASA side of the property line, but from the occupied land adjacent to it. I’m confident that if you ask Orange Grove Fire Department they’ll confirm that virtually all the fires they’ve responded to in the Thunder Mountain/Mt Mitchell area were the fault of people living in those neighborhoods – sparks from chimneys, kids with fireworks in their backyard, brush clearing gotten out of control, etc… My point here is that the fire risk is there with or without MST and I don’t think MST adds materially to that risk. It might, however, help to mitigate it.

One of the conditions of allowing the MST on your property could be that the MST agree to work with OWASA and Forest Service experts to implement a fire risk mitigation plan. That could include anything from a small timber crew with chainsaws removing windfalls, to simply having volunteers drag all limbs/brush within 20 feet of the trail to someplace to be chipped into mulch to line the trail (MST becomes a fire break). You need a fire risk mitigation plan with or without the MST, hosting the MST could help you get some of that covered at no expense to Orange County taxpayers. At the very least, having regular sets of eyeballs along the MST in the woods would provide an early warning system for any fire threats, and the MST itself would help provide quick access to contain a fire.

General Risk
This really is an umbrella category that covers some or all of the other two. Brenda McCall mentioned in her statement to the Board at the June 24th meeting that her insurance agent told her that she would need more insurance if the MST were located on OWASA property near her home. I don’t doubt that she was told that – I’ve been around enough insurance salesmen to know how much they are pushed by their companies to increase revenue. I suspect that rather than an increase in insurance being anything that would be required by a mortgage holder for a homeowner’s policy or something similar, this was more the case of an agent seeing a possible way to drive sales.

OWASA doesn’t want to be on the hook for forcing all adjacent property owners to fork over more hard earned money in insurance premiums because of the increased risk due to MST nearby. But, like the “thuggery” item above, due diligence on this one is easy. Simply reach out to the NC Department of Insurance. They will be able to identify right away if there are additional known risks to having a public hiking trail nearby that would mean additional insurance coverage would be required. They may defer to a few key insurance companies, asking them if they would recommend an additional rider or umbrella policy. Just like with the thuggery item, this is one of major consequence statewide. If MST drives up insurance costs for adjacent property owners, we all need to know about it sooner rather than later.

All Orange County Citizens
If your due diligence on water quality and impact to adjacent landowners shows no more than a negligible negative impact, then you are left with considering the impact to the entire county. I believe that is where the Orange County Parks and Recreation comes into the mix. They seem to have already concluded that the fastest and prettiest way to get from the Haw River to Hillsborough to connect the MST is through the Cane Creek corridor and utilizing public lands around the reservoir. Poring over maps and the Orange County GIS leads me to the same conclusion. No other route is anywhere near as elegant or has so few property owners to negotiate easements with.

I’ll leave the details to the County to provide, but there are high expectations that the MST will drive revenue, growth and recognition for Orange County as a great place to live. Completing the MST from the Haw River in Alamance County to the Eno River parks in Durham County will be a strong positive impact for Orange County for generations to come. I hope one day, before I’m too old, to be able to hike that full distance with other life-long Orange County residents and bask all along the way in the wonderfulness that is this gem of a county, my heart and home.

I am relatively confident that a rational look at the available evidence will point towards agreeing to host the MST on OWASA property. The real issue that will require heavy thinking, I believe, will be what conditions OWASA should impose. Here are a few I submit for your consideration:

  • Setbacks from shore lines, property lines and houses: establish a required minimum distance from the shore of the lake, from all adjacent property lines and from all houses on adjacent property. Exceptions to this rule could be granted on a case-by-case basis. For instance, if the adjacent property owner agrees to a set-back less than the general guideline, then OWASA can approve an exception to allow the trail to run closer to the property line. I’d recommend a good starting point of 100 feet from the shore and from property lines, and 250 feet from homes.
  • Bridges: No bridges over reservoir water. However, if a bridge might provide a better trail route that does a better job of avoiding proximity to homes and property lines, OWASA might consider allowing an exception, assuming a quality bridge design that did not touch or impact the water and was visually pleasing (consider for a moment a modern version of the suspension foot bridge in Eno River State Park – it might be a wonderful addition to the trail system in the right situation).
  • Coordination with Forest Service: Friends of the MST volunteers should set up a local volunteer group that will interface with OWASA and the Forest Service and be engaged in helping to implement a fire risk mitigation plan and ongoing maintenance.
  • Trail width: In keeping with the coordination with MST on fire risk mitigation I mentioned above, you might consider if requiring a specific width trail in some places is a good idea in order to ensure access by ATV in the event of a fire emergency.
  • Trail heads/Parking: None on OWASA property. But, an exception may be granted for OWASA property that does not touch the reservoir, is on a major road rather than a small side-street, and is no closer than 300 feet from any home. I mention this only because OWASA does own a couple of orphan parcels away from the reservoir that might make for a perfect trail head location. OWASA might want to lease the land for the trail head, grant an easement, or sell the land for the trail head.

Finally, in closing, I’d like to say thank you for doing what you do on a day to day basis. As my father pointed out at the June 24th meeting, resentment of OWASA out this way was high back when the reservoir was flooded. But, over the years OWASA has proven to be a very good neighbor. Thanks for that. Orange County, and especially the southern half of the county, is full of engaged and opinionated citizens like myself and Mr Sylva. That can be both a blessing and a curse, and I am confident y’all will do your research, due diligence, and do the right thing with regard to the Mountains to Sea Trail.

Bob Johnson



Mr Johnson, I haven't followed this issue closely, but you seem to provide a comprehensive way of looking at the real issues and are willing to consider all points of view.  A model for public discourse on all topics!

Thanks for that. I am passionately in favor of MST, both generally and in this specific instance with the proposal to route it from the Haw River to Hillsborough via Cane Creek. But, I can easily understand other folks not wanting MST anywhere near them. We can surely find a way to work together to ensure a trail route and trail use policies that ensure quiet enjoyment for everyone.

This was a great analysis and I hope it works out. My dad was president of the Buckeye Trail Association in Ohio which created a loop trail around the entire state. They have a long history of working with land owners and have been very successful in getting buy in by the local community. The bottom line is that hiking trails are a great asset and have almost no negatives.



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