Wabash River Trail to learn about funding request

By Joseph Slacian

Representatives of the Wabash River Trail should learn Tuesday, if their request for $960,236 from the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority has been granted.

The RDA board will meet at 2 p.m. March 14 in the Ventura Room in Fort Wayne to discuss that request and others it received at its February meeting. Among the other requests was one from the Eagles Theatre for $996,567 for its renovation project.

Glenn Butcher, who is spearheading a campaign of opponents of the river trail, said representatives from his group plan to be at the meeting Tuesday.

The trail representatives are seeking the funds, part of the RDA’s Road to One Million campaign, for the Lagro portion of the project.

Butcher told The Paper of Wabash County that he met with Wabash River Trail representatives Amy Ford and Justin Gillespie, trail designer Dawn Kroh from Green 3, Wabash County Plan Commissioner Mike Howard, and Keith Gillenwater, president and CEO of the Economic Development Group of Wabash County, who arranged the March 8 meeting.

Butcher said he presented the group a list of the opponents concerns, ranging from danger the trail may create for bald eagles that nest along the Wabash River, to the fact that if the trail group receives the RDA money, it would open the door to the use of eminent domain to acquire property from owners who refuse to allow the trail to cross their property.

Trail officials have told The Paper on two occasions that they will not use eminent domain to obtain the land.

Butcher said he also presented the group an alternate route for the trail, which would use county roads rather than private land.

“Pretty much, they’re just set in their ways,” he said of the meeting.

Butcher and his wife, Sheila, have hosted two meetings of concerned citizens at their business, Bass and Bucks.

At the last meeting on Feb. 2, State Rep. Bill Friend said that he contacted officials from both Duke Energy and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and none were aware of the work completed on the Wabash River Trail in the Lagro area.

Duke Energy spokesperson Angeline Protogere confirmed to The Paper, “Our Asset Protection group, which oversees our easements, was not aware of this project prior to the construction that already has begun. We are talking with the organizers of the project about the easement and issues involved.”

River Trail officials have requested permits from the DNR; however, those have not yet been approved. None-the-less, work on a boat ramp just east of a bridge on State Road 524 has been started.

The Paper is still awaiting answers to a series of questions posed to the DNR. However, Howard, who in his position as plan commissioner, must give approval to any DNR permits, noted that the work was done.

He said it might be a case of the group finding it easier to ask for forgiveness from the state.

Any requests for work must start with the DNR, and eventually works its way down to the county level.

“For lack of a better phrase, we basically rubber stamp what they send,” he said.

As for any penalties for working without the permit, Howard said that would be something the DNR would have to rule on.

Butcher said that he and his wife planned to host another meeting of concerned citizens, probably sometime next week.

He also said they would be happy to participate in a panel discussion with representatives from the Wabash River Trail which was broached in an editorial in The Paper of Wabash County on March 8. The discussion would be filmed and aired on Wabash WebTV.

No one from the River Trail has contacted The Paper as to whether they would participate in a discussion.

The Butchers also made a presentation March 6 to the Wabash County Commissioners presenting their concerns about the trail. During the meeting, County Attorney Steve Downs answered some questions posed by the couple.

According to paperwork filed with the Indiana Secretary of State’s office, Downs is listed as the registered agent for the Wabash River Trail.

Contacted by The Paper, Downs said in an email that he didn’t consider the matter a conflict of interest.

“Every small town lawyer encounters and deals with potential conflicts of interest on a regular basis and has to remain vigilant about such matters,” he wrote. “A conflict arises if the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another.

“Your inquiries seemingly suggest that a conflict of interest may exist because a group of citizens is of the opinion that the trail should not be constructed or is not in compliance with the floodplain ordinance.  However, the mere fact that a group of citizens opposes the trail or claims it violates an ordinance does not constitute a conflict of interest with regard to my representation of the county.

“It is the job of the Commissioners is to see that county ordinances are enforced.  As I explained (March 6),  before the Commissioners can consider whether or not to issue a stop work order under the floodplain ordinance, they first must have a recommendation for such an order from the flood plain administrator based on a finding by the administrator that the trail is in violation of an ordinance.  Until such recommendation is made there is nothing before the Commissioners to consider, so there are no circumstances presently in existence giving rise to a possible conflict of interest.

“However, in the event the flood plain administrator makes such a finding and recommendation, and the trail wants to contest the finding and recommendation for a stop work order, I will appropriately address any conflict of interest at that time.”

Emails to the three Wabash County Commissioners, as well as Wabash County Council chair Jeff Dawes, as to whether they would ask Downs to recues himself  from any matter concerning the county and the trail have not been answered.

Posted on 2017 Mar 14