Making the grade

When Michael Domonkos and his wife were considering retiring to Brevard from Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1994, one amenity in particular caught their attention. Tame climate and concert series aside, it was a proposed trail on the former Transylvania Railroad corridor that ultimately made up the couple’s minds. The route, they understood, would pass near their chosen subdivision en route from the Pisgah National Forest to downtown Brevard.

“We had a rail trail near us in Michigan,” says Domonkos; that state’s 1,398 miles of designated rail trails are second only to Wisconsin’s. “One of the reasons we moved here was the potential of the trail. It was perfect.”

Soon after unpacking, Domonkos, a former administrative-law judge, got involved in promoting the proposed path and eventually became a board member of North Carolina Rail-Trails, a Durham-based nonprofit.

Yet more than a decade after the Brevard trail was proposed, not a trace of asphalt has been spread on the former rail corridor. Near the Domonkos’ home, a rather derelict-looking segment of the old railroad grade peeks out from between a chain drugstore and a fast-food restaurant before being swallowed by thickets ornamented with discarded soft-drink cups, grocery bags and sheets of newspaper. Once the backbone of commerce in the region, the railbed is a crusty relic of its former self: frail and useless, like a rusty padlock without a key.

Some Brevard residents may be happy to keep it that way. A decade after the city took title to the abandoned line in the 1980s, a local committee proposed the multi-use trail. But while there was some enthusiasm for the project, not everyone in the town was onboard with it. Before Domonkos even arrived here, in fact, the project was already in danger of being derailed. Some community members had jitters: Wouldn’t a trail in their back yards be an invasion of privacy? And what about crime, vandalism and trash?

“Those are typical concerns,” explains Jennifer Kaleba of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C. “What is heartening is that we are hearing them less and less as more people can see what rail trails bring—and what they don’t bring—to a community.”

True, privacy may be somewhat compromised when a trail passes near residential areas, but there are also significant benefits, such as attracting retirees, creating green space, building community, enticing new businesses and creating a viable transportation corridor. In Brevard, the trail links the middle school with several neighborhoods, creating a safer commute for teens.

Apart from local NIMBY opposition, however, legal obstacles are often enough to kill such projects. “Abandonment,” when a rail company terminates a line, can cause headaches even for legal experts like Domonkos. In some cases, ownership of a rail corridor can revert to adjacent landowners.

However, federal and state laws allow former lines to be “railbanked” rather than abandoned; that is, a trail agency and a railroad company can agree to protect a corridor for future use as a trail. Unfortunately for trail advocates, many lines end up being abandoned, resulting in a mishmash of conflicting ownership claims that can sidetrack a project.

“There is a lot of confusion regarding who actually owns the land once a railroad gives it up,” says Domonkos. “Century-old property records for the railroads ran all over the map—there wasn’t a standard.”

That was the case in Brevard when opponents brought a court action in 1998 challenging the city’s right of way. As a result, the city was unable to convert the rail to a path. Despite the litigation, the city believed there was enough interest in the trail to make finding another route worth the effort.

The outcome is the Brevard multi-use trail, 2.6 miles of asphalt connecting the Davidson River Campground on U.S. 64 with the Transylvania campus of Blue Ridge Community College. The wide path twists past wooded neighborhoods, schools and ball fields, stopping short of downtown Brevard on one end and the Pisgah National Forest on the other.

Technically it’s not a rail trail, since it doesn’t utilize the rail corridor. Still, Domonkos is pleased with the effort and says he walks his dog on it every other day. “We got deflected, but we got something done,” he says. “Our efforts spurred the city to move ahead, and the final link of the trail to the middle school will be on one-half mile of the old railbed.”

Meanwhile, plans are in the works to complete the link between downtown Brevard and the national forest, thus achieving a key goal of the original project. The trail will also incorporate a portion of the abandoned Carr Lumber Company corridor in the Pisgah National Forest, as well as the stretch of trail near the subdivision where the Domonkos live. The golden spike, so to speak, will be hammered in 2010.

The trail will add a small bit to North Carolina’s current aggregate of 51 miles of designated rail trail. It’s an anemic number by Michigan standards, but it’s bolstered by the 219 miles of rail trail now in development across the state.

Meanwhile, Domonkos’ skills are in demand for other projects throughout North Carolina. On the local horizon is a 15-mile out-of-service rail corridor connecting the former Ecusta paper mill in Brevard with Hendersonville. Norfolk Southern owns the corridor, though trail advocates hope the stretch will become available for railbanking.

Domonkos is also spearheading efforts to draw attention to other rail corridors in Western North Carolina, such as the Mount Mitchell Railroad and the Little Tennessee River greenway in Franklin. “It’s a matter of recognition,” he says. “The more people that notice rail corridors making great trails, the more there will be.”

[Jack Igelman lives in Asheville.]

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