The Victor Herald
Volume 4 Number 51
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Submitted by the Coalition

Most Victor residents agree that open space preservation is important. Most value the natural environment that still exists, in these times of rapid growth. So what is the controversy with the Auburn Trail Extension project? Why are people who share common values unable to find common ground? Why are there objections to the taxpayer funded project to create a multi-use trail from Fishers to Powder Mills Park?

We represent a Coalition of environmental groups that oppose the current plans. We appreciate the chance to explain our position.

The Coalition is specifically concerned with an environmentally sensitive 3000 foot stretch of the 2 1/2 mile project –from the intersection of Railroad Mills Road and Probst Road south to the deteriorating culvert that crosses Irondequoit Creek. The Coalition has supported the project and its goals of environmental protection, connectivity, and safety. But we feel the planners have erred by not recognizing this environmentally sensitive section, and treating it differently. It could be a special destination, and a unique asset to the Town.

The “rails to trails” concept is a good one, and is one we support. However every section does not need to be the same. In the case of what we call the Railroad Mills Special Environmental Area (RRMSEA), the sensitive environment should guide the design. A design exception for a narrower trail should be made for this area.

The trail runs on an old rail bed, constructed in the floodplain of Irondequoit Creek in the 1850’s. The trains ceased running in the early 1950’s and the tracks were pulled up in the 1960’s. Most of the plants that grow there have colonized it over the past fifty years. Because it is not a natural environment like an old-growth forest, many people think there is little of natural value there. Surprisingly, that is not the case.

It is no ordinary rail bed. We have tallied over 200 species of plants: wildflowers, shrubs, trees and vines. Three quarters are native species. The diversity is astounding.

RRMSEA lies in the heart of the upper Irondequoit Creek Valley, a center for some of our region’s greatest biodiversity - particularly for birds, butterflies, amphibians, and plants. It is a several mile long wild valley, with rich, limey soils and a variety of habitats. The area has been recognized for years – even a 1975 study done for the Town recognized it as a unique area worthy of preservation. We have found three NYS-threatened species in that short distance. That is remarkable, and may be unique in the state.

Both federal (NEPA) and state (SEQR) environmental regulations apply to this project. It is the responsibility of the Town to show there will be no significant environmental impact.

Contrary to specific recommendations from DEC to do detailed studies, the Town has followed the advice of its consultant, Fisher Associates, who has said there will be no impact, and that there is no need for field studies. When it became apparent that the project planners would not be doing a study our Coalition botanists began to look more closely at the plants along the trail.

Late last summer we found two additional threatened species (in addition to one we had reported earlier) growing close to the existing footpath. There may be other locations for these plants along the trail, and other plants that may yet be found. The NYS Heritage Program (part of DEC) has now recommended that the Town undertake comprehensive botanical studies in 2009, in order to avoid unintended impact of rare species. The Town should follow these recommendations.
There are other concerns beyond the environmental ones. The project planners have not recognized the many people who use and value the existing trail. The trail offers a unique up-close nature experience that draws birders, butterfliers, and other nature lovers. Coalition groups represent over 5000 people in Sierra Club, Genesee Valley Audubon, Burroughs Audubon, Rochester Birding Association, and Rochester Butterfly Club. MCC biology classes, Rochester Retired Teachers, Oven Door Runners, Wednesday hikers, Osher Lifelong Learning at RIT also use the area. So do neighbors, bicyclists, joggers, and photographers. We know of no other trail in our area that gets as much use from so many different groups.

The overwhelming majority of current trail users – not the hypothetical, future ones - want to see the trail remain narrow. They prefer that it be left as it is, or compromise to a 3’ alternative that meets Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. The current users value the existing natural and aesthetic qualities, and believe area will be seriously degraded by the proposed development plans. The great majority of current users were not considered in the Town proposal.

There is a required public input process for grants of this nature. Comments submitted by that process (comment period ended before Thanksgiving) have been 2 to 1 in favor of keeping the trail narrow. But the Consultant simply put the comments into an Appendix of its planning report, with no discussion or analysis. Several letters and 26 pages of petition signatures supporting the narrower trail were omitted. It appears the project managers are going through the motions of a public process – rather than making a good faith effort.

Over half of those that support the current proposal are members of Genesee Regional Offroad Cyclists (GROC). GROC works closely with the Town Parks and Recreation Department - it was active in the formation of Dryer Road Park. The Town was the recipient of a trail development grant from a foundation run by the GROC Advocacy Chair. Its Advocacy Committee recently sent an email to its hundreds of members claiming that the Coalition wants to keep bicyclists off the trail, and that it had requested the removal of a Town employee. These charges were completely false, and we informed the Town Board and Project Advisory Committee. Since two members on the Advisory Committee are on the Board of GROC, and a third member is president of a sponsor organization, we asked them to set the record straight.

The intentional spreading of misinformation hurts everyone, and undermines the process. GROC, and its representatives in the Town, should issue a public retraction.

At a recent Town Board workshop on the project, Board members were given a packet of papers, and were told they were public comments. We received one of those packets. The comments given to Board members were only ones that supported the position of the Town representative and Consultant. The more numerous comments supporting a narrower trail were not included. Was this proper?

Proponents of the current plan mention safety as a reason for a wider trail. The existing trail is flat, straight, and has excellent sight distance. Bicyclists travel slowly. Passing on the grass is done easily and without problem. It is safe. It is not unreasonable to have a narrower trail for only 3000’ that will allow bicyclists and runners to comfortably coexist with those observing nature.

Another point brought up by proponents is the “connectivity” as part of the larger regional trail network. Regardless of trail width, the trail will connect, as it does now.

Some proponents state that the grant would be threatened if a narrower alternative is considered. There are examples in other local projects, using the same funding sources, where sections of trails have been left untouched. Lew Gurley, retired regional director of DOT with over forty years experience in the field, has stated that he has never seen a grant threatened by the consideration of a design exception. The key is that environmental justification needs to be presented to the funding agencies. The Coalition has considerable expertise in the biodiversity of RRMSEA (see our website, for more information). The Coalition has offered to work with the Town to develop the environmental justification for a design exception.

We have never been invited to sit down and help develop such justification. Our offer stands.

The Railroad Mills Special Environmental Area is highly valued by many people. The narrow trail offers some of the best opportunities in our area for people of all ages and abilities to experience nature up-close. There are wider areas for interpretive signs, and places for passing. There is great potential for environmental education for the children and families of Victor. This will be lost with a 6’ wide stonedust path.

We are asking for 3000’ of this trail project to be treated differently than the rest of the trail project. We urge the Town Board to consider RRMSEA as the treasure it is, and to respect the current users, the public input, and the environmental sensitivity. It is not too late to develop a community-valued trail, a trail that is good for users, for the environment, and for the Town.