By Brenda Starkey
Ferry County received a draft agreement that would give the county control of 28 miles of railroad right of way from Torboy to the Canadian border in the north part of the county, commissioner Brad Miller announced at a May 15 public meeting dealing with possible uses of the rail corridor Tuesday.
Commissioners made some changes to the agreement and sent it back to the OmniTRAX railroad headquarters in Colorado, he said.
The right of way in Ferry County, part of the OmniTRAX Kettle Falls International Railroad, is being abandoned, and rails and ties soon will be removed, Miller said.
The county also received an extension for having the corridor rail banked. The previous deadline would have expired this month, Miller said.
Under a federal rail banking statute, a railroad is allowed to remove all of its equipment with the exception of bridges, tunnels, trestles and culverts from a corridor, and turn it over to any qualified private organization or public agency that has agreed to maintain the corridor for future rail use.
Removal of ties and rails should start this month. The railroad is supposed to repair any roadways the tracks have crossed.
If people notice this not being done, they should contact the county road department, Miller said.
Some 126 people attended commissioners' special meeting to hear about the railroad corridor and debate its future use. It was the second such meeting this year; 89 people attended a similar meeting in February.
County commissioners attempted to use the meeting to control rumors about future use of the corridor should it be rail banked and to hear people's comments on a possible non-motorized or motorized trail that might be established.
"Letters to the editor, rumors and things we've heard around the county have put words into the county commissioners' mouths," said commissioner Joe Bond. "If there's going to be a rail trail, it's going to be a long way down the pike."
Representatives from the Ferry County Rail Trail Partners expressed their opinions that a non-motorized trail, based on trails elsewhere in the state and across the country, will benefit the county's economy and increase property values.
FCRTP is promoting a non-motorized trail. More information is available at its Web site, www.ferrycountyrailtrail.com.
Roy Lammer, whose property is adjacent to the rail corridor, also urged the commissioners to establish a non-motorized trail.
He said concerns including vehicle noise, vehicle damage to terrain and wildlife, abuse by motorized hunters, family privacy, easy access by vandals and vehicle conflicts with other trail users make trail use by off road vehicles an unwise choice.
Lammer also urged commissioners to plan for regulating activities on the corridor once the tracks are removed, since a default path will exist there at that time.
He also urged county commissioner Mike Blankenship, an avid motorized sports enthusiast, to set aside his personal interests and respect the wishes of the local community when he participates in the decision-making process.
"I am a motorized recreation enthusiast," Blankenship told the crowd, adding that this doesn't mean he thinks the rail corridor should necessarily become a motorized trail.
"Don't think I don't have the capacity to empathize with the people of the county," he said. "I'm an elected official and I swore that I would represent the people of my district and the county, and I'm not going to abstain from voting on this issue."
Blankenship also said the rail corridor, being fairly flat and level, might not be a very exciting route for off-road vehicle enthusiasts.
Most of those who spoke at the meeting seemed to support a non-motorized trail. Many expressed their visions of a quiet trail that could be used to appreciate nature and provide a place for non-motorized transportation for trips into town or to school.
Some even said such a trail would help control the emission of greenhouse gases since there would be less commuting by motorized vehicles.
One man from the southern part of the county urged commissioners to consider the economic benefit of a motorized trail, saying that such a facility would bring more tourists and ORV-based businesses into the county.
"If you bought that property when the train ran through there, you probably had noise," he said. "Don't just think of your own little selfish thing of we don't want to have noise. Money is what talks."
Most proponents of a motorized trail were met with boos from others in the crowd.
Several people urged a referendum, an idea suggested by Lammer a few weeks back in a letter to the editor. Lammer has since given up that idea.
A referendum would go out to all registered voters in the county, Miller said, adding it couldn't just include those who own property adjacent to the trail.
And it would have to wait until the regular election since the county doesn't have the money to fund a special election, he said.
"We haven't got the papers signed with the railroad yet, so it's not county property yet," Miller said.
"You can rest assured you've got three county commissioners up here who don't want to divide the county," he continued. "As of tonight I haven't made a decision.
"Remember, no decision has been made yet and I don't think we're within six months of making that decision," Miller said.