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'Everybody wins' with Swamp Rabbit rail-trail

TRAVELERS REST, S.C. — On Monday night, the Transylvania County Commission raised a question about the planned Ecusta Trail’s potential “negative impact on existing manufacturing employers or businesses.”

That’s an easy one, Randy Mathena, owner of Paper Cutters Inc., in Greenville, SC, said on Tuesday: There won’t be negative impacts. At least he hasn’t seen any from the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail, which flanks his four-acre factory site.

The north-south Swamp Rabbit stretches 22 miles from Greenville through the once-sleepy suburb of Travelers Rest. Since the first stretch was completed in 2009, it hasn’t been been linked to a single theft at Mathena’s plant, he said. It hasn’t blocked access or interfered with his operation in any way. It has, on the other hand, promoted public health, linked communities and their residents, and sparked explosive economic development.

“Everybody wins, nobody loses,” said Mathena, 72. “It’s one of the best things that ever happened to Greenville and our area.”

The question about Ecusta’s potential to impede industry was one of more than a dozen listed by Commissioners at its Monday meeting, which also highlighted a disorienting split of perspectives about the trail during a crucial point in its progress.

With the recent announcement of the purchase of the 19.4-mile former rail corridor and plans to start construction in Henderson County early next year — and with the strong support of the Henderson County Board of Commissioners and the Brevard City Council — the project has never had more momentum.

And never has this momentum stood in such sharp contrast to the hostility to the project expressed by some Transylvania landowners and the noncommittal skepticism of the Transylvania County commissioners.

Chris Burns, a board member and one of the founders of Friends of the Ecusta Trail, tried to overcome these doubts at Monday’s meeting, answering commissioners questions about security, maintenance costs, economic development and the rights of residents whose property includes portions of the corridor.

But Burns has also long encouraged people curious about trails to visit communities that have built them, including Greenville County, where trail users, business owners and even formerly opposed landowners repeatedly echoed Mathena’s opinion about the Swamp Rabbit.

“The trail has changed this area tremendously,” said Kelly Frazier, who teaches Health Sciences at Furman University and walked on the trail Tuesday after dropping her son off at cross country practice at Travelers Rest High School.

“I think it’s been only good. I don’t see anything bad about it.”

“Transformed by Trails”


Cody Pittman, manager of the Whistle Stop at the American Cafe in Travelers Rest
Trails are often touted as boons for local economies, but Transylvania resident Mark Parker’s doubt about this, he said, was one reason he spoke out against the Ecusta at Monday’s meeting.

His mother’s property on Hendersonville Highway extends across the corridor, he said, and his family understood the need to cede the right-of-way when it was devoted to a railroad that served the once-vital but long-shuttered Ecusta Mill paper plant.

“The railroad was put in for the economic future of the county, so we would have industry and jobs,” he said. The Ecusta Trail, on the other hand, “is not going to be an economic generator for the county.”

“He’s dead wrong,” said Jan Schulman, 64, a self-described “serious cyclist” who moved 18 months ago from Pennsylvania to a community in Greenville County precisely because of its easy access to the Swamp Rabbit. “There is report after report of towns being transformed by trails.”

Travelers Rest, for example, was a “ghost town” before the trail was built, said Mathena, who moved his factory to its current location 22 years ago.

In his memory, the only place to eat in town was a diner called the American Restaurant. It reinvented itself as the Whistle Stop at the American Cafe in 2013, said manager Cody Pittman, and was quickly followed by Sidewall Pizza Co., built in a former tire shop, and then other establishments specializing in, among other fare, tacos, crepes and sushi. “TR,” as locals call Tavelers Rest, is also home to a brewery, a distillery, a coffee shop and sprawling outdoor gear store.

“This whole area just blew up and I’d say the majority of that was due to the trail,” Pittman said, who added that the main complaints about the trail is that it is too popular and has brought in too much development.

“I think everybody’s fed up with the traffic,” she said.

In and around Travelers rest, drivers are confronted by housing projects with names such as Trailview Townhomes and Velo Living that serve as come-ons to potential buyers who, like Schulman, want to live near the Swamp Rabbit.

The trail has not only brought residents, but increased wealth and a sense of community pride that has spilled over to the high school, said Frazier, 43, whose family moved to a house south of Travelers Rest in 2009.

“I wasn’t excited about sending my kids to school here because it wasn’t the greatest place,” she said.

“Now they are calling TR a trendy and fun place to be, whereas 10 or 15 years ago — No!” said Frazier, making a sour face for emphasis, “Nobody wanted to live here.”

The trail has also brought investment to the formerly down-at-the-heels industrial area in southern Greenville, said Andrea Washington, assistant manager of Riverside, a new apartment complex in the neighborhood.

“When the trail came in it brought in a lot of new traffic,” she said. “The trail itself is one of the coolest things about Greenville because it goes so far and it really brings people together.”

Ty Houck, greenways director for the Greenville County Parks and Recreation Department, said his office stopped commissioning economic-impact reports about the trail in 2014 because the benefits were so obvious.

That year’s study showed the trail had generated $6.7 million in annual tourism revenue alone and estimated it drew more than half-million visits.

“The studies were expensive and intensive,” he said, “and once the total user group exceeded the total (2010) population of Greenville County, I figured I didn’t need to study it anymore.”

Property Rights


Greenville County property owner Barry Coleman pointing to housing developments near the trail.
A visit to Greenville County can also help address the most contentious issue raised by Parker and Transylvania Commissioners: the ownership of some stretches of the Ecusta corridor.

Ninety percent of this was owned outright by the railroad that sold it to a subsidiary of Conserving Carolina two weeks ago for $7.8 million, Burns told them Monday. Private owners hold the other 10 percent, he said, and their deeds include “reverter clauses” that call for the property to be returned to the original owner when the rail line is abandoned.

The corridor, however, has been “railbanked” under a federal law intended to preserve right-of-ways for potential future rail use, he said. Because of this, the line is not considered abandoned, and owners cannot reclaim their land. But they may be compensated by the federal government, he said, and a St. Louis law firm, LewisRice, has reached out to represent these property owners in a class action lawsuit.

That pledge was not enough for Commissioner Teresa McCall.

“Do they not own that land, or are you just grabbing that land?” McCall asked Burns, and later told him, “There are property owners that need to be heard and their concerns need to be satisfied before I think you’ll be successful in any way shape or form.”

Parker told commissioners he considered Conserving Carolina’s purchase a “hostile takeover of property,” and afterwards said his family wasn’t interested in compensation. “We want the land. We don’t want this (trail) coming through there.”

Barry Coleman understands, he said as he drove an old Chevrolet pickup on rutted, red-clay roads through a 27.5-acre tract of agricultural timber land he bought next to the trail’s corridor in 2007.

When the project was first proposed, he said, “I was upset like everybody else . . . I mean, it’s coming in your backyard."

He’s since become a convert to the trail, riding his bicycle to it from his nearby house almost every evening and logging 1,200 miles on the trail so far this year. A confidentiality agreement keeps him from revealing how much he received in an action similar to the one being pressed by LewisRice, he said, but “you can definitely say it was good. It was very fair.”

But the real benefit is the increase in the value of his land, which he bought in 2007 for the bargain price of $52,000 because about 10 of its acres were occupied by a power line easement, wetlands and what was then an abandoned rail line.

“We were the only ones making an offer,” he said.

He got out of his truck to walk past a steady stream of cyclists on the shaded stretch of the trail next to his woods. When he came to a main road, he pointed to upscale housing projects, one of which touted its entrance as being “steps from the trail.”

With the presence of the Swamp Rabbit — and, he acknowledged, the soaring nationwide demand for housing — residential land is now going for an average of more than $30,000 per acre in this neighborhood, he said. The completion of the trail had replaced a liability, the rail bed, with an asset. He does’t plan to sell, he said. But if he did, might the presence of the trail help him realize a larger profit?

He laughed loudly and asked facetiously, “You think?”

'Witnesses and reporters'

Crime was another issue raised in the list of questions submitted by Commissioners — and by Parker. Theft along the old rail line is already a problem and with the construction of the trail, he said during a break in the meeting, “you know it’s going to get worse. More people, more stealing.”

Not necessarily, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation document published in May, Rail Trails: Best Practices and Lessons Learned. “Trails are unlikely to experience security and safety issues significantly different from the surrounding area,” the document said.

According to news reports, a jogger in the city of Greenville was assaulted on the trail in October, and though she was able to fight off the attacker, the Greenville Police Department recommended users follow basic precautions such as running with a dog or friend or joining a running group.

But such serious crimes are rare, at least on the stretch of the trail that lies within the county, according to a list of incidents reported there since 2016 and provided to NewsBeat by the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office.

The 28 calls received so far this year, for example, included one “death investigation” that was “not crime-related,” said department Public Information Officer Lt. Ryan Flood. The rest were for minor matters such as “suspicious person” and “nuisance animal.”

Though those reports included only the path of the trail, and not surrounding homes and businesses, Pittman said the most serious crime she’s seen at the Whistlestop is a stolen flag outside the restaurant, and Coleman said his biggest headache is the four-wheelers who sometimes access his property from the trail.

Master Deputy Mike Jenkins said his experience of patrolling the trail for 10 years confirms their impression that most trail users are law-abiding and respectful.

“I’ve had more people saying hello and thanking me for my service than I’ve ever had in my career,” said Jenkins, who has worked in law enforcement for 30 years.

“Generally, what you see are people who are out walking, bicycling, jogging, pushing strollers and sight-seeing. My question to you is whether they would be more likely to increase crime or deter it . . . You have witnesses and reporters everywhere,” he said, and added that patrolling the trail at slow speeds on a motorcycle allows him to keep tabs on any potential crime problems in neighborhoods all along the Swamp Rabbit.

Frazier said that as long as she avoids certain parts of the trail, she feels secure walking and jogging on it alone. Wendy Watkins, 64, who was cycling with Schulman on Tuesday, was even more adamant.

“I’ve never not felt safe on the trail,” she said.

The shifting politics of trails

An issue the Commissioners didn’t bring up: community cohesiveness.

Besides the heath benefits of the trail, said Sabrina Smith, partnership coordinator with LiveWell Greenville, “it also brings something that is just as important: connectivity across our county (and) an increased sense of community.”

And the trail can connect people politically, said Mathena and Coleman.

Views about the Ecusta Trail are now sharply divided along partisan lines, said Parker, who thanked the commissioners for being “champions of personal property rights,” and afterwards said, “all the liberals are for the trail and all the conservatives are against it.”

True enough, the Brevard City Council, which is generally seen as left of the County Commission, agreed in June to take the lead in overseeing construction of the trail in Transylvania and voted to apply for a $21 million grant that would include funds for its construction.

County commissioners later declined to back that grant application and, on Monday, refrained from committing to any other form of support.

But McCall’s comments notwithstanding, commissioners are not necessarily opposed, said Commissioner Larry Chapman. “I don’t know of any of us who have put a stake in the ground to say we’re against the project,” he said.

And City Council member Maureen Copelof, who attended the meeting, said she left feeling hopeful that the Commissioners’ willingness to hear more about the trail might foreshadow a willingness to join in what would ideally be a joint city-county project.

“I am really optimistic that as they get more information, they are going to see the real benefit of this trail,” she said.

That’s the way it worked with the Swamp Rabbit, said Mathena and Coleman. Mathena calls his politics “right of center,” and Coleman said “I’m not a liberal Democrat by any stretch of the imagination.”

But they saw acceptance of the trail spread across the political spectrum as its benefits became more and more obvious.

“It’s not a matter of whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican and I tell everybody that compromise is not a dirty word,” Mathena said. “This trail’s done too much good for anybody to be against it.”

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Dan DeWitt's Brevard NewsBeat covers Transylvania County.