The Boone County Trail Committee hosted a trail summit Nov. 13 at the Boone County Fairgrounds to discuss the future expansion of the Big 4 Trail and its connection between Zionsville, Whitestown, Lebanon and Thorntown.
Cory Whitesell, director of planning at HWC Engineering, facilitated the discussion between community members and Boone County officials. Whitesell specializes in complex planning projects that involve coordination between multiple units of government and various community stakeholder groups.
“The interesting thing about Boone County is that people here work together in smart ways,” Whitesell said.
Whitesell said a study showed that trails ranked No. 2 among 18 community amenities as reasons to choose specific locations when buying property. He said people want to live near trails because they can be interesting and aesthetically pleasing, provide a way to connect community members and promote health and fitness.
Trails also can provide economic opportunities, such as increased tourism spending and local economic activity, as well as regional connectivity.
“This is part of a regional effort. The state has been building trails since for about 15 years, starting with a vision plan in the early 2000s,” Whitesell said.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced his 2019 infrastructure plan in September, outlining a $1 billion investment in infrastructure projects through The Next Level Connections program. Holcomb plans to utilize $90 million of the infrastructure budget to link communities through hiking, biking and riding trails. The state has a grant program in the works that encourages local and regional collaboration to grow the state’s trails system.
“This is an opportunity to move (the trail) forward, but it takes getting a plan together,” Whitesell said. “The idea of a summit is to get people together and talk and see if we can come up with an answer.”
The committee presented five options for connecting the trail sections. Option A would follow the abandoned Big 4 rail bed and cross only six land parcels. Other options included running the trail parallel to county roads, and an option to build alongside a legal drain. Some of the county road routes would have the trail crossing as many as 32 private properties.
“Option A has the fewest number of parcels to be acquired, but all of these have land acquisition challenges,” Whitesell said.
Many community members were in favor. Some community members asked several questions and raised concerns about public safety, infrastructure and interference with private farmland.
Whitestown Town Manager Dax Norton expressed concern about the danger of having a trail next to roadways.
“Ten feet is not very far off roadway, especially on a county road,” Norton said. “That’s the beauty of most rail bed trails – you don’t worry about that. It’s safer.”
Zionsville resident Don Schafer said he is an avid biker and would like to see the trail connected to make it longer for bike routes. Lebanon residents Jack and Jill Allen said local farmers are concerned the rail bed option will inhibit privacy.
“The rail already separates their properties, so I think the big issue with farmers is the privacy,” Jack Allen said. “But this is not going to be the Monon. You’ll have hours during the day where there’s nobody.”
David Riggleman, a Zionsville resident, is a runner and cyclist who would like to see the trail connected so he can take longer rides with fewer road crossings. He uses the Starkey Park trails nearly every day and said they could be widened as well.
“If I could, I would take 10-, 15- or 20-mile rides. I typically don’t bike on the trail and limit it to running because it’s a 3.5-mile trail now,” Rigglemann said. “I like the rail bed option because some of these routes along the county roads would be noisy.”
Lebanon Police Chief Tyson Warmoth said there has never been a crime reported on the Big 4 Trail in Lebanon. The Boone County Sheriff’s Office uses UTVs to patrol the trail.
“We have no reported crime along the trail. It’s extremely safe,” Warmoth said. “My wife and I use it almost daily.”
Whitesell noted the large turnout at the summit, with an overall positive outlook about the trail.
“A lot of really good things are happening with this. We are excited to see where it has come,” Whitesell said. “You have to look at this situation by situation, segment by segment, to figure it out and find the best answer.”
The Boone County Trail Committee will deliver a report in January, announcing which route the trail will take. Norton said the Town of Whitestown is in favor of route option A, the abandoned rail bed.
“If this is a priority of the county and a necessity of economic development, and the only way to get it done is eminent domain, it’s imperative that we use that tool,” Norton said. “But we want to negotiate with willing sellers, and that’s what we should do first.”