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Editorial: Rail-to-trail projects benefit communities

The 49-year agreement between a nonprofit group and the Buffalo Pittsburgh Railroad will open up a new world to those who had no idea the beauty beneath their feet. They will find it because of the pact allowing the construction of a 27-mile trail along the rail line from Orchard Park to Ashford.

The project will also spur economic development to businesses that will now have new customers: people who might have been walking, running, biking along the trail and who spotted the specialty shops and mom-and-pop mainstays. Clubs and organizations working on projects might find themselves with new members.

The world opens up when new trails develop. Consider the Tonawanda Rails to Trails initiative and others. Bicyclists, walkers and runners make a beeline. Others include people enjoying warm, sunny days, welcoming fall and appreciating the crunch of snow during winter. And then it repeats.

The Orchard Park to Ashford trail includes five additional 10-year options, creating what amounts to a 100-year lease, according to Deb Fenn, president of the Erie Cattaraugus Rail Trail group.

Next up is figuring out how each section could be used. Possibilities include hiking, bicycling, cross-country skiing, horseback riding or snowmobiling.

The trail links two counties, seven municipalities and one hamlet. They are the towns of Orchard Park, Aurora, Colden and Concord, the villages of Orchard Park and Springville and the hamlet of West Falls in Erie County and the Town of Ashford in Cattaraugus County.

Skeptics may want to check in with communities that have already embraced trails. The 1.7-mile-long section in Springville known as the Pop Warner Rail Trail opened two years ago. The village secured a right-of-entry agreement with the railroad to allow development of the trail, which cuts a diagonal line across the village.

These old rail lines become abandoned and, thankfully, because of nonprofit groups and others, they find gratifying reuse. When that rail line was abandoned, New York State decided it would be a good idea to develop the trail as a linear park, and entered negotiations with the railroad. Unfortunately, negotiations broke off about five years ago. This is where interested parties play a big role. Erie Cattaraugus Rail Trail took over.

Fenn said an economic impact study might be completed. Hopefully it will help quell concerns by some neighbors worried about who might be traipsing around not too far from their backyards. Some hesitation is understandable. They worry about safety and property values, enough so that opponents created an online petition that drew 55 signatures.

Concerns ranged from privacy, aesthetics, safety, property values, lifestyles, increased cost and liability to adjacent property owners and proximity to the West Valley Demonstration Project.

These are all valid concerns and easily put to rest by looking at other communities with their own trails.

"Rail trails have been built all around the country," said Anne S. Bergantz, a member of the Erie Cattaraugus Rail Trail board of directors. "It's not something that’s new. Our communities are no more dangerous than any other community. There's no reason why we can’t have something great in Western New York."

Opening up public recreational spaces has drawn positive feedback from the people using them and also from the neighbors, who become champions of the effort. This will serve the people of Western New York for decades to come.

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