Madison's recreation trail committee held an open house for residents to learn about the proposed route for a new bicycle trail to Lake Herman. The new trail would run west from Flynn Field along Silver Creek in the south part of Madison. The trail would cross Highland Avenue near Gehl, run south to the old NFO corner, then cross the road and run straight west to the state park entrance. (No formal plans yet to add the full 7.5-mile Lake Herman Loop... but I'm working on that!)
About 30 of us (I think Chuck might have included the engineers and local officials in his count) gathered in Madison's fire hall for the meeting to study the maps and ask questions of the patient engineers from Ulteig.
I say patient because the engineers had to stand through a fair amount of old-guy crabbing and small-town politicking. I heard one gentleman reciting his decades-old grievances about selling his land in southwest Madison for dirt cheap so Gehl could get built and then geting surprise bills for curb and gutter. The gentleman's point was a general assertion about not trusting the city on projects like this. The engineers listened politely and nodded as they eagerly awaited some actual engineering questions.
More bothersome to my ear were the protestations of David Pitts, who drives down from Ramona to farm the 150-some acres he owns across the road from Gehl and Madison's southwest corner. The proposed route would slice maybe three acres off that cropland. Pitts was a vocal opponent of a previous push to build a rec trail to Lake Herman, and he's renewing his protests over this effort.
I want to sympathize with Mr. Pitts's concern for his property rights. However, much of what I heard him say Tuesday night was, frankly, bull.
Pitts told the engineers (who again, did a lot of patient listening to matters that aren't their job to deal with) that he can't stop his combine on a dime to avoid a bike trail. His point is that he's going to lose a lot more cropland than the ten-foot ribbon of asphalt will take up. If I recall the map correctly, there would be a ten-foot easement next to the trail.
But if I recall correctly, when my wife and I rode the bicycle trail from the Lewis and Clark campground in to Yankton this summer, we found corn pretty close to the trail. Perhaps Pitts can drive down to Yankton for lessons on precision tractor driving.
Pitts told the engineers that it just doesn't make sense to situate recreation next to industry (industry meaning David Pitts). What Pitts fails to acknowledge is that recreation is also an industry, one on which our Chamber of Commerce stakes pretty big hopes (the town logo features a sailboat, not a combine). A bike trail to Lake Herman State park would be a key part of our local tourism industry, encouraging campers and day-tourists to come to Madison, ride and roller-blade around, and spend money. Infrastructure doesn't have to support big trucks to support business. (Read more on the value of recreation and public facilities in the city's comprehensive plan, Chapter 6.)
Pitts told the engineers that originally the city had proposed laying a bike trail along Highway 34, as evidenced by the little strip of trail out by Prairie Village on the old roadway. He seemed to say the city should go back to that plan. Never mind, of course, that a bike trail along Highway 34 would pass through even more industrial land, crossing driveways and taking up parking and workspace for Lake County International, Twin Lakes Veterinary, East River Electric, Tires Tires Tires, and several other businesses. Pitts doesn't really think it's a bad idea to have recreation next to industry or even a whole bunch of industries; he just doesn't want it near his single industry.
Pitts expressed his general disdain for bicyclists (and, I assume, anyone he might see dawdling about on a recreation trail), saying that "anyone who's got time to sit on a bicycle" has got time to take some longer route—i.e., some route not on his land. There were other implications in his tone of voice, the kind of implication that says, "I'm an important citizen, and you other guys aren't."
It is with difficulty that I restrict myself to noting that Mr. Pitts's characterization of bicyclists misses the point that many such individuals who have time for recreation also have money to spend. They'll buy drinks and ice cream in town. They'll buy gas and tires for their campers. They'll buy bikes and kiddie trailers and rollerblades and windbreakers and other sales-taxable gear. They'll rent campsites and motel rooms to come spend time in a town that offers a wealth of recreation opportunities.
Mr. Pitts also misses the point that even folks without a lot of disposable income can benefit greatly from a free recreational facility like a bike trail. Rich or poor, families can take their kids out for a walk or a tricycle ride on a summer evening, away from the dust and noise of trucks on the highway.
Mr. Pitts clearly thinks recreation doesn't deserve any favors from his industry. Of course, Mr. Pitts's industry benefits from the generosity of a community (and a state) that exempts some of his clearly commercial vehicles from commerical vehicle licensing laws. He might not be in a good position to protest "favoring" one industry over another.
I have deep sympathy for arguments in defense of personal property. If Mr. Pitts wishes to simply say, "It's my land, and I don't want to sell," that's fine. But when he manufactures arguments against public infrastructure couched in selfish, inconsistent, and at least unneighborly if not insulting language, he doesn't help his case.
Update 2009.11.02: Count on the blog to spark neighborly conversation: David Pitts called me last week, and we had a good 2+ hour discussion. Read his take on the story, complete with his suggestion that the city has been a less-than-straight shooter.
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