The Railroading of a Trail Project: The Auburn Trail Extension

By Carol Hinkelman and Steven Daniel


Versions of this article have recently appeared in Coalition newsletters: Genesee Valley Audubon Meadowlark
Rochester Birding Association Little Gull, and Burroughs Audubon Nature Club Tanager


Many of us recognize something intrinsic in our human connection to nature, what E.O. Wilson has termed “biophilia.” It’s what makes the prospect of the loss of the Railroad Mills Special Environmental Area (RRMSEA) of the Auburn Trail Extension, with its exceptional bird, butterfly, and plant habitat, its easy walking and special nature up-close experience, all the more senseless.  Yet Town of Victor officials forge ahead with their project, ignoring concerns expressed by Sierra Club, Burroughs Audubon, Rochester Birding, Rochester Butterfly and Genesee Valley Audubon members, neighbors and many other users. What should be an open process to consider suitable alternatives  has been misused to justify a predetermined outcome – a wide bike trail paved with stonedust.

 

A Failed Trail Planning Process – A Short History

2004.  BANC member, Carol Hinkelman wrote a letter to Brian Emelson, Victor’s Parks and Recreation Director, expressing concerns about the environmental impacts of proposed widening of the Auburn Trail Extension.

2005. Naturalist Steven Daniel expressed similar concerns at a Victor Hiking Trails (VHT) Board meeting, and asked VHT to recognize the special environment of the 3000’ trail section, RRMSEA.

2006 to Present.  In August 2006, we learned that Victor had applied for a federal grant to ‘improve’ the trail, proposing a 10’ wide stonedust surface with graded shoulders, with no mention of environmental concerns. 

We met with Brian Emelson, who assured us that Victor was eager for our assistance and expertise. This turned out to be one of many empty promises.

The Coalition  was formed to advocate for RRMSEA. We decided to work in good faith with the Town, rather than contest the application which was being reviewed.  In hindsight this was a major error; it became evident that Victor had no intention of addressing Coalition concerns.

Although federal regulations require an open process in choosing a consultant, Fisher Associates had the inside track.  They were the consultant on a similar Town project, and had helped prepare the application. It was chosen in a process that violated NYSDOT guidelines.

The Town formed a project Advisory Committee, which has not met since October 2008 - after the Coalition objected to the wide trail proposed in the Town’s Draft Report.

In November 2008, the Coalition prepared a 21-page Response, highly critical of the Draft Report. The document cited Victor’s failed planning process, (designed to justify a predetermined outcome) and its lack of environmental due diligence, as it ignored DEC recommendations. The Coalition reported two new NYS-threatened species growing along the trail which the Town and its consultant, having done no real studies, was unaware of.

After NYS Natural Heritage (NYNHP – a division of DEC) confirmed our report, FHWA, the federal agency overseeing the project, took the unusual step of requiring Victor to prepare an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the project. An EA requires detailed environmental studies which the Town still attempted to avoid. In December 2008 it sent a delegation to Albany to lobby Steve Young, NYNHP Chief Botanist, requesting he retract his recommendation for botanical surveys.

Meanwhile hundreds of people wrote to the Town, requesting a narrower trail in RRMSEA; many spoke at Town Board meetings.

Safety Side Note

GROC, along with Emelson, told the Monroe County legislature that bikes on narrow, steep, curving trails in Monroe County Parks were safe, while in Victor they claimed a 3’ wide, flat trail with excellent sight distance was unsafe.

NYS Ethics Law requires government employees to work for the public good, not their self interest. Yet at a public meeting we observed Brian Emelson give the Town Board a packet which he characterized as public comments - not revealing they were handpicked to support his position. Emelson also contacted members of GROC (the mountain biking club of which he is a Director) and urged them to come to public meetings. 

Early in 2009, Victor’s new Town Supervisor, Jack Marren, met with Coalition representatives. We hoped he would consider our offer of a win-win compromise. We prepared a Vision  for RRMSEA – Coalition members would maintain the narrow trail, offer nature walks, and work with schoolchildren and others; we would develop the area into a showcase for environmental education. Our experts would assist the Town to write a proposal for a variance for a narrower width. The trail we proposed would be “multi-use” – used by cyclists, hikers, nature lovers, and the disabled. 

Unfortunately, Victor was not interested in our proposal, and said they would continue the process to construct a wide, stonedust bikeway through the sensitive environmental area. 

It won’t be a place to linger for a nature outing, to watch birds or butterflies. Corridors like the canal path are fine for exercise and cycling – but most of us go elsewhere for nature excursions. 

The situation worsened by late 2009. After a year of recommending a 6’ width, FHWA suddenly changed their position and advised the Town to construct an 8’ wide bikeway with 1’ graded shoulders. This proposal will create a 10’ wide swath of habitat destruction. 

A New York Flora Association December 2009 newsletter article "Not an Ordinary Rail Bed", written by Steven Daniel, documents extraordinary plant diversity along the trail: 315 species of plants, over 71% are native. RRMSEA is also one of the region’s birding and butterflying hotspots. It is recognized as one of our region’s special environmental areas. Except in Victor. 

Victor’s Conservation Board (CB) had previously supported a 3’ width as best for the project. In December 2009, Coalition members asked it to oppose this new, more destructive plan. At a meeting attended by vocal project advocates (VHT and GROC were there) the CB voted to support the Town’s proposal. Connections and politics trumped the environment.


What is Next?

The EA is planned for release in mid-February, after which there will be a 30 day Public Comment period and Public Hearing. Concerned people should send comments, and come to the Hearing. Be assured that mountain bikers will be there in force. (The trail ends at Powder Mills Park, which has challenging trails, though currently illegal to ride.) 

If the Town and FHWA approve the EA, the only recourse is a legal one. We are considering a legal defense fund. 

In the grand scheme of things the Auburn Trail isn’t one of the great environmental issues of our time – not like global warming or natural gas drilling. But the piecemeal loss of important environmental areas is a major local issue. “Death by a Thousand Cuts” is what our dear friend Christine Sevilla called it, shortly before her tragic death last fall. If this project goes through it will be a loss for us, our children, and the future. 

We hope you will speak out. 

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