Rails to Trails Aims to Connect the County

Shannon Harrar, Centurion Staff

Spanning across miles of the greater Philadelphia region, what is known as “the Circuit” is an ever-growing network of trails connecting communities surrounding the city. The coalition, in its end goal, hopes to provide 800 miles of continuous multi-use trails to residents and nature enthusiasts alike.

Nestled among the web of existing trails and pipeline plans for expansion, lies the abandoned Newtown/Fox Chase rail line. What was once home to an old Septa route is now slowly being converted to miles of nature trails, as part of the nationwide conservancy movement, Rails to Trails.

The first portion of the Newtown/Fox Chase line was converted and completed in 2015 and includes the Pennypack trail, which connects Philadelphia to Montgomery County. The trail stops at Byberry Road in Huntingdon Valley, but the old rail line extends much farther than that. Reaching into Northampton and Newtown townships, if the trail were to continue to the railroad’s end in Newtown Borough, the complete route would cover over 24 miles, and could take its users all the way down to Penn’s Landing. The next portion of the project has already been approved by Upper Southampton Township, and ground was broken for the construction of the trail in the fall of 2019. The projected completion date is sometime in the fall of 2020.

The next segment of the trail in question titled the “Newtown Rail Trail” by community members, has been a hotly debated topic in Northampton township since about 2016. The trail would connect four different municipalities and run along the abandoned railroad, which has been sitting unused for more than 25 years. The proposal had been approved by Middletown and Newtown townships as well as Newtown borough, but further development has been waiting for approval from the very divided Northampton.

Back in December of 2016, the Northampton Board of Supervisors had voted down the proposed feasibility study for the trail project, 3-2. Dr. Kim Rose and Barry Moore voted yes to get more information about the proposal, with Rose stating, “I will not say no to a feasibility study that will not cost our township one cent.” Board members Larry Weinstein, Eileen Silver and Frank O’Donnell voted against. The three cited “the County’s lack of response, clear answers, additional cost to homeowners and showing harm to the residents” as reasons against the feasibility study. These reasons cited are in reference to the multiple town hall meetings held by the County prior to the vote to discuss the logistics and plans for the trail.

Despite the feasibility study being voted down, talks about the trail still circulated within the community. By later the next year, it was a popular subject when it came time for the monthly town hall meeting’s public comment portion. Residents either for or against the trail would come out to address board members about their varying opinions toward the project.

Anti-rail trail community members expressed many concerns with the addition of the trail to Northampton. From worried mothers to cautious taxpayers, there was clearly a strong opposition to the proposal. At a meeting back in Sept. 2017, one Northampton woman, Michelle Druding, spoke out somewhat harsh and drastically about how her opinions of Dr. Rose changed after she voted for the feasibility study. She expressed how “astounded and flabbergasted” she was that Dr. Rose would put her adolescent children at risk of strangers coming within feet of her property to potentially burglarize her home for money that would later be used for opioids. Druding, referring to the trail as a “burglary escape route,” and “opioid highway,” goes on to claim that the trail would give “non-residents and residents alike more opportunities/places to engage in things like drinking, having sex and doing drugs.” Toward the end of her diatribe against the trail project, she discloses that she had even gone out and renewed her right to carry when the trail proposal was resurrected.

Another concerned resident, Jeff Gold, spoke out against the trail and the tax money that would be used to fund it. He even referenced a website for those interested to visit, called stoprailstotrails.com. Gold expressed his exhaustion at the fact that the topic kept being revived when many people were against it, and it had already been voted down.

On the other hand, pro-trail community members also came forward for public comment. Ann Vaneerden expressed her disappointment in the voting down of the trail and showed her dismay to hearing harsh criticism spoken about supervisors following the vote. Joanne Klempner, showing similar sentiments, quoted a saying “if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward,” commenting that she did not want to see the town move backward. Klempner thanked the board for always striving for progress, “even if we have different opinions about what progress looks like.” She then questioned the community members repeatedly showing up to meetings “spewing the same angry anti-trail rhetoric and misinformation… when there’s nothing scheduled for a vote nor on the agenda.”

The “misinformation” Klempner mentioned is in reference to claims from anti-trail residents of property values decreasing, and increased crime and tax rates, among other issues, if the trail were to be constructed. However, studies that have been done in trail communities have shown proximity to trails to have positive effects on home values. Nationwide studies have also concluded that major and minor crime rates are not affected by trails. And lastly, through studies and interviews done with neighboring townships such as Doylestown, it has been shown that costs to residents for this project would be insignificant.

There is clearly a tenacious opposition between the two groups, and each side kept their efforts going until the topic was finally added to the board’s agenda again. At a recent Northampton township meeting Wednesday, Feb. 26, supervisors put the resolution up for a vote once more. This time around the board members voted for the project, 4-1, in what the rail trail supporters would call a great victory. Members for the plan this time around consisted of Dr. Kim Rose, Eileen Silver, Barry Moore and Adam Selisker. Supervisor Frank O’Donnell stood firm on his position against the trail.

Silver, who voted against the project back in 2016, stated, “since January 2019 the questions I had have been answered,” and told any of the meeting’s audience members who still had concerns to talk to the board. “Let’s see if we can come together to solve your problem because this is something that I think is going to be a feather in our cap,” she stated optimistically. Despite the victory, there is still a lot of work to be done moving forward. Dr. Rose estimated another five years before construction would be ready to begin on the completion of the trail, which is about a 12-month job in its entirety.