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Friends of Ecusta Trail president responds to 'misinformation' in Transylvania County

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark B. Tooley, president of Friends of the Ecusta Trail and a Transylvania County resident, wrote this response to comments made at a recent meeting of the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners. The column first appeared in the Transylvania Times.


At the February 27 meeting of the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners some of the commissioners made comments regarding the Ecusta Trail, many of which need clarification. Two of the commissioners are against the Ecusta Trail for personal reasons and have stated that position during public meetings. In order to set the record straight and to finally put an end to the misinformation that exists around the rail line and the Ecusta Trail, I submit the following responses to their comments based on the known facts.

Fact - The railroad corridor was “railbanked” with the Federal Surface Transportation Board prior to the sale from Blue Ridge Southern Railroad to Ecusta Rails2Trail LLC. Railbanking was established in 1983 as an amendment to Section 8(d) of the National Trails System Act as a way to preserve thousands of miles of rail corridor that might otherwise have been abandoned. It allows for a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail sponsor (such as Ecusta Rails2Trail, LLC) to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service. It prevents the railroad corridor from being abandoned and preserves the corridor for future railroad use.

Comment - The railroad never owned the property.

Response – Conserving Carolina paid to have a thorough title search done on the entire rail line prior to their subsidiary’s purchase. It indicated that almost all the rail line in Transylvania County was owned by the railroad company. This is consistent with the railroad’s previous claims. If they have questions or concerns, property owners are encouraged to have their own title search done to verify the status of the rail line adjacent to their property.

Comment – Landowner’s deed contains a reversion clause (reversion of rail corridor to property owner upon abandonment by the railroad).
Response – The railroad has not been abandoned, but rather railbanked. Conserving Carolina’s title search revealed that a small percentage of the original deeds granting property to the railroad contained reversion clauses specifying use(s) of the corridor. Some of these landowners may be eligible for compensation from the federal government in the legal action described in the next response.

Comment – People’s property rights are being violated.

Response - The only thing that has changed from over a hundred years of use by the railroad is the ownership and the use of the rail line. Ecusta Rails2Trail LLC obtained ownership of the rail line in 2021 when they purchased the rail line from Blue Ridge Southern Railroad. As the new owner, Ecusta Rails2Trail LLC has the right to use the property for uses defined within the railbanking agreement with the Surface Transportation Board. If landowners believe they own land within the rail corridor, several law firms have come forward that will assist landowners in determining whether they in fact own the land, and if so, to represent them in legal action against the federal government to seek fair compensation for land taken.

Comment - Landowners are paying taxes on the right-of-way (ROW).

Response - By N.C. General Statute (105-333) the NC Department of Revenue performs an appraised valuation of the land that the rail line uses and sends that valuation to the local taxing unit whereby taxes are assessed to the railroad company. Whether a landowner is being assessed taxes on land that the railroad is already paying taxes on is a question they should investigate with the local tax office.

Comment – The trail will pass in close proximity to existing dwellings such as homes and outbuildings (the commissioner’s comment said the right of way goes through someone’s living room).

Response – Unless the structure was built prior to 1895, the location of the railroad and its corridor should have been known prior to locating a structure there. The rail corridor is 100 feet wide in most of Transylvania County and structures placed within that corridor should have been required to have a legal encroachment agreement with the railroad. However, the City of Brevard and its agents will work with the existing landowners to minimize the trail’s impact on their property and activities.

Comment – There is no opportunity for economic development along the corridor. The land is farms and floodplain and has no access to infrastructure (water, sewer).
Response - The 2012 Ecusta Trail Planning Study and Economic Impact Analysis conservatively estimated a one-time financial impact of $42 million and an annual financial impact of $9.4 million, with a nearly $2M increase in visitor spending by an additional 20,000 visitors each year. Users of the Ecusta Trail will have access to the businesses in downtown Brevard via connection to the existing Estatoe Trail. Commercial nodes currently exist in Pisgah Forest, Penrose and Blantyre and are likely to see further development and expansion as the trail becomes a reality. Also, some rail trails allow the use of the rail corridor for installing new infrastructure such as fiber optic, water, and sewer as a less expensive way to serve new economic development.

Comment – There are already hundreds of miles of existing trails in Transylvania County.

Response – Yes, there are hundreds of miles of trails in the county, however most are unusable for many users including novices, the elderly, the very young, and those with disabilities. Most of the mountain bike trails in Pisgah National Forest, Dupont State Recreational Forest, Gorges State Forest and Bracken Preserve are highly technical and only useable by experienced and fit riders. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a well-traveled road with no shoulders and severe elevation changes. It too is only useable by the fit and experienced rider. The only equivalent trail in Transylvania County to the Ecusta Trail is Brevard’s Estatoe Trail. It currently extends from downtown Brevard to Pisgah National Forest, approximately 6 miles, and can frequently be seen serving the types of users that the Ecusta Trail will eventually accommodate. The Ecusta Trail is also planned to be a part of a much larger regional greenway system called the Hellbender, which will provide connectivity between Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe, and Haywood Counties.

Comment - Agricultural operations are being interrupted.

Response - There have been no changes in access across the rail corridor since the change in ownership in 2021 and none are anticipated in the future, except perhaps temporary interruptions during construction of the trail. That includes roads, driveways and field crossings.