LE MARS, Iowa | Officials with the city of Le Mars have intervened in a dispute over plans for a 16-mile recreational trail that would connect Le Mars and Sioux City.
The proposed $10 million project hit a major stumbling block over the issue of what entity would own the segment in unincorporated areas of Plymouth County. Citing liability issues and the cost of maintaining the PlyWood Trail, the Plymouth County Board of Supervisors and county Conservation Board balked at taking ownership.
PlyWood Trail Executive Board of Directors member Ryan Meyer applauded recent action by the Le Mars City Council that he said helps push the trail closer to fruition.
In three separate votes, the council signed a letter of intent to serve as the contracting authority for developing and constructing the trail, approved engineering consultant agreements with McClure Engineering and Schlotfeldt Engineering, and agreed to work with Merrill and Hinton, two smaller Plymouth County towns along the route, to work out agreements over ownership and maintenance of the trail.
"The committee views all of these developments as favorable, and continues to work diligently with all the impacted individuals and stakeholders to bring the trail to life," Meyer said.
Meyer noted one other step was settled upon in the council meeting, with the PlyWood board agreeing to hold a public meeting to share information with all potentially impacted landowners along the trail.
Le Mars Mayor Dick Kirchoff said the trail will be a boon to the region. He faulted Plymouth County officials for not helping move it ahead. Kirchoff said his prime goal is to boost economic development, and contended the trail will draw workers and businesses to the area.
"The demand is there for the trail...It is called quality of life," Kirchoff said.
PlyWood concept dates to 2012
The PlyWood name is derived from the first few letters of Plymouth and Woodbury. The trail was first broached in 2012 by the Siouxland Interstate Metropolitan Planning Council.
In a best-case scenario, construction could start in late 2018, after financing is finalized and easements settled.
Fourteen of the 16 miles of the proposed route run in Plymouth County.
The city of Le Mars could take ownership of the trail in rural areas of the county by establishing so-called lineal parks, slender strips of right-of-way along the route, which would run roughly parallel to U.S. Highway 75. Under such a plan, the cities of Merrill and Hinton would control the trail through their respective boundaries.
At the southern end of the trail, in rural Woodbury County, Sioux City also could be asked to create a lineal park. Sioux City Parks and Recreation Department Director Matt Salvatore said the city is a partner in the project, but has not reached the point where the City Council has been asked to take action.
"I believe our city council is supportive of this project, and supportive of trails and quality of life developments in general," Salvatore said.
In Plymouth County, the trail would run for six miles in an abandoned railway, as verbally approved by the Iowa Department of Transportation, contingent upon final engineering plans. The other 10 miles would cross about 30 private landowners' parcels, where easements would be needed. It would also tie into an existing trail in Hinton, Iowa, on the west side of Highway 75.
A private group of trail enthusiasts, many of whom serve on the PlyWood Trail Board of Directors, have pledged to raise funds for the construction and future maintenance of the trail initially. They contended it made the most sense for the Plymouth County Conversation Board to take ownership. But that five-member conservation board board in February said they "couldn't commit to the project at this time."
Plymouth County Conservation Board Director Nick Beeck in February drafted a letter to the PlyWood board, advising the group it should look for a different entity to own the trail. Beeck in a May interview said "you hate to rule anything out," but the project as it was last presented could not get Plymouth County support.
The conservation board's decision is tied to the chilly reception the trail issue has received from the Plymouth County Board of Supervisors, which approves the conservation board's budget.
County Supervisors Chairman Don Kass, of rural Remsen, in February said the board is "not anti-bike trail," but contended only 2 percent of residents are avid bicyclists. Kass said it is not fair for the county to use tax money to give to the county conservation board for maintenance costs, since some county residents living some distance from the trail will never use it or "never lay eyes on it."
Backers plan to start private fundraising later this year. They have already received $1 million in seed money from the city of Le Mars. Wells Enterprises, the maker of Blue Bunny ice cream and the largest employer in Le Mars and the county, has pledged a seven-figure contribution.
State and federal grants will be sought for much of the remaining cost.