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David Pitts Not Selling Land for Bike Trail; Can You Blame Him?

Tuesday's Madison Daily Leader carries a lengthy letter from Madison neighbors David and Gloria Pitts, who are among the landowners declining to sell their land to the City of Madison for construction of a bike trail to Lake Herman. The letter recounts information Mr. Pitts told me in October 2009 about what he perceives as bad treatment at the hands of the city: surveyors entering his land without permission and risking damage to a new winter wheat crop, wire flags being placed without permission and posing a risk to his cattle, the city misusing state law to justify these trespasses.

Tuesday's letter also offers a little fodder for the rumor mill on why Public Works Director Heath VonEye may have submitted his resignation Monday night:

On March 4, 2009, we received a letter from Ulteig Engineers stating that they would be on our property with survey crews in the next few days surveying for the rec trail.

We were very concerned because we had a crop of winer wheat planted there. So we called the number on the letter with our concerns. They didn't answer. So we took the letter to Mayor Hexom. After reading it, he looked me right in the eye and said he didn't know anything about it. He said, "Let's go down to the city engineer and see what he knows about it."

Mr. Comes read the letter, looked me right in the eye and said he didn't know anything about it but said maybe Heath VonEye, public works director, would know something about it. So we drove out to visit with Heath.

He said they had a meeting with Ulteig concerning a rec trail along the south side of the creek from Lake Herman to Madison. We could not believe this.

...We found out a few hours later the city mayor, engineer, Heath, and a few other people were at a meeting with Ulteig Engineers at Classic Corner... [David and Gloria Pitts, letter to the editor, Madison Daily Leader, 2011.03.22, p. 3].

Now this letter doesn't establish evidence for outright wrongdoing. Maybe the public works director was simply the point of contact and the message about Ulteig's threatened activities hadn't worked its way up the chain of command yet... though it apparently worked its way up that chain quickly enough for the governing parties involved to clear their schedules for a meeting later that day.

Whatever the role of our various city officials in this affair, the Pittses' experience with the city on the rec trail only reinforces the sense that far too many of my neighbors express to me on a regular basis: that Madison is governed by a handful of individuals who are determined to have their way regardless of public opinion or landowner rights or any other inconveniences of civil society.

David and Gloria Pitts also make a reasonable argument that the Lake Herman trail would be better built "at the edge of the road, as we have seen it in other places in South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri." Even if statute wouldn't hold the Pittses liable for accidents on the trail through their land, the Pittses say their insurer would.

Some places do lay bike trails on the road shoulder. Doing so would be cheaper and less environmentally disruptive than laying a trail through farmers' fields (and through that shelterbelt on the south side of the road to the state park, a shelterbelt I fear faces total bulldozing for the convenience of the builders if the trail is approved in its current design). Building along the road would not require buying right-of-way or resorting to eminent domain on hesitant landowners like the Pittses.

Let's leave David and Gloria Pitts alone. They've made clear they don't want to assume the burden of a trail across their land. We could try to negotiate an even higher acquisition price with them... but I'm betting the Pittses' sell price, if they even have one, is higher than the price of much easier alternatives.


  1. Brett Hoffman 2011.03.24

    I'm not expert on any of the issues involved with building a bike trail, but is it fair to guess that a trail built alongside a road would put bikers (especially kids) in greater jeopardy of getting clipped by a car?

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.03.25

    Off-road trails are preferable. I love riding them. The old railbed out to Prairie Village would be ideal and more scenic. But on-road trails are a cheaper alternative that I find preferable to eminent domain. And as Pitts points out, lots of other places make on-road trails.

    I've regularly ridden the stretch in question—from Gehl south on the Hwy 34 bypass to the old NFO building, then west on 234th to the State Park, for 20+ years. I regularly encounter trucks, campers, RVs, etc. They are generally good about giving wide berth to two-wheelers and pedestrians. The bypass already has a good shoulder and a wide ditch into which it could be expanded. The county road west, if I understand correctly, is narrower than it should be and could stand to be widened within the right-of-way. Stripe it, sign it, and you have usable infrastructure that costs less and doesn't burden private landowners.

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