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Tangled legal trail raises questions about Bristol dream

BRISTOL—Seven years ago, city leaders embarked on dream to replicate the popular Creeper Trail in Damascus.

They bought 12 miles of a former rail line in western Washington County with the idea of providing a recreational destination, for visitors as well as residents.

Now, more than $600,000 later, city leaders may abandon the controversial Mendota Trail project. The proposed hiking and biking trail from the city limits to the Scott County line was scheduled for discussion by the city council last week, City Manager Bill Dennison said.

“It’s a terribly convoluted, complicated, very expensive proposition,” Dennison said. “Continuing a project, with no end to the expenses in sight, doesn’t seem very prudent to me.”

Since 2000, the city has invested about $635,000 to acquire the land and pay legal and engineering fees.

Early estimates put the trail’s construction at approximately $1 million.

After a number of landowners tried to claim ownership in 2001, the city sued all 180 people with potential claims. Fewer than 20 are still involved in the lawsuit, which has not yet gone to trial.

Last month, Washington County Circuit Judge C. Randall Lowe agreed with the city’s argument that the former railroad land didn’t revert back to the original property owners when the railroad ceased operations.

The judge has scheduled a Dec. 14 pre-trial conference to hear other issues in the case before setting a trial date.

“It affirmed our position, but it also showed there are four large gaps we don’t own between the north corporate limits and the Scott County line,” Dennison told the Bristol Herald Courier. “The railroad went across the land, but the land was never acquired from the property owners.”

Dennison said he didn’t know what it might cost to acquire the remaining land.

Mayor Jim Rector offered one solution: asking the Washington County Board of Supervisors to condemn the property.

Still, he said, “I think we need to take a deep breath, re-evaluate the direction and see what we need to do.

“The court ruling was great, but our legal advisers say there are several pieces of property where no deed exists. It could take another five to 10 years to complete this project, I don’t know.”

Former Bristol Mayor Doug Weberling helped spearhead the trail project in 2000, and he still thinks the trail is a good idea.

“It seems a shame to not do it,” Weberling said. “Everyone around us is doing trails and reaping the economic benefits, and Bristol is going to be left out.”

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