Rail trail group looking at pipelines

The Rail-Trail Council is considering entering into a natural gas pipeline easement to secure funding for future projects. Pictured is Lynn Conrad, Rail-Trail project manager.

BY LAURALEGERE

Times-Shamrock Writer

A Susquehanna County rail-trail organization recently awarded federal and state funds to renovate the second stretch of its 38-mile trail is trying to balance its current and future conservation goals as it considers signing easement agreements for natural gas pipelines in its right of way.

The Rail-Trail Council of Northeastern Pennsylvania has not yet signed an agreement, but it has negotiated with as many as six different pipeline companies in the last three years in the hope of reaching a deal for part or all of the recreational corridor, council President Kirk W. Newsom said.

The nonprofit’s D&H Rail-Trail runs 38 miles from Fell Twp. north to the New York border through Union Dale, Ararat, Starrucca, Susquehanna and seven other municipalities. It borders a region busy with Marcellus Shale natural gas development.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced two grants for the Rail-Trail Council in December, including $500,000 for trail design, construction, landscaping and a ramp for a 7-mile section of the D&H Rail-Trail in Herrick and Ararat townships and $64,400 to fix or replace two wooden railroad bridges on the trail in Clifford Twp.

The $500,000 grant was the match the council had been seeking for years to unlock a $1 million federal grant that will allow it to develop a 7-mile stretch of unimproved trail north of a renovated 10-mile section opened in 2006.

Grant recipients must consult with DCNR before signing anything that might affect their state-funded projects, DCNR Deputy Secretary Cindy Dunn said.

“They would need to have us review the agreement to assure that the intent of the grant and the recreational use of the trail corridor is still met,” said Lauren Imgrund, director of DCNR’s Bureau of Recreation and Conservation. She said pipeline agreements that impact trails are not unusual and the state frequently works with conservation and recreation grant recipients to manage other land uses without compromising taxpayer-funded projects.

Dunn said the department can advise grant recipients on details like timing a project so that a section of trail is not renovated only to be torn up during pipeline construction.

Both officials called the Rail-Trail Council “a good partner.”

A similar review would be conducted by the agencies distributing the federal portion of the funds, Rail-Trail Council project manager Lynn M. Conrad said.

The council was initially approached by a pipeline company three years ago and has since initiated contact with other companies that might have interest in the right of way, Newsom said.

“We’ve had, obviously, a lot of false starts,” he said. “We have had conversations and they are continuing to go on. I’m hoping that we will have some closure on this.”

The council has two decades of experience with pipelines to learn from: The corridor’s previous owner negotiated for a gas distribution line to be built under eight miles of the trail from Union Dale toCarbondalejust before it sold the land to the Rail-Trail Council, Conrad said.

The council split some of a one-time payment that helped fund its first trail, but the organization had “no input whatsoever” in the terms of the agreement and had to deal with the construction and the drainage, restoration and maintenance issues that arose later, she said.

“We know all the difficulties we had,” she said. “We’re trying to be very cautious with pipelines.”

Last year, the council objected to a pipeline company’s petition for public utility status inPennsylvaniabecause it would carry with it the right of eminent domain. The pipeline has since retracted its proposal.

“If we end up with a pipeline running through the right of way, we’re going to make some people very happy and some people very unhappy, I suspect,” Newsom said.

But the promise of funds for future projects has spurred the council to pursue a deal on its terms.

“If we pull this off, we think we’ve got an opportunity to do a lot more,” he said. “That’s the idea: figuring out how to get some resources to do things that up until now we’ve maybe just been able to dream about.”