Some rail-trail conversions face opposition from landowners living alongside or near the corridors. Lack of information and unanswered criticism of trail proposals usually fuel this opposition and lead to misconceptions, including confusion related to property rights issues, concerns that property values will drop and liability will increase, and fears of increased crime such as littering, trespassing, burglary and vandalism.
A large majority of trail opponents find that their fears about the trail never materialize, and numerous studies refute that rail-trails increase crime, lower property values or introduce new liability claims. In fact, adjacent residents almost invariably become enthusiastic trail users and supporters within a few years of a trail’s creation. The key is to address people's initial fears early and openly, and then opponents can begin to recognize the trail as a positive community amenity.
Turn Opponents into Advocates
Read first-hand experiences from former trail opponents and get ideas on how to turn an opponent into an advocate.
You can also read how trail advocates won over opposition on RTC’s Trailblog:
- Illinois' Old Plank Road Trail
- Indiana’s Pumpkinvine Nature Trail
- Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail
- Illinois’ MCT Goshen Trail
Though there was some opposition to building the trail system at first, Kane said that people’s attitudes have shifted over time. He recalled the time when he was scouting out the rail corridor for the MCT Nature Trail in the late 1990s, when an animated neighbor came out and shook his fist at him.
“They didn’t want a trail there,” said Kane. “They thought it was going to ruin their privacy and be the worst thing that ever happened. Then, fast forward a couple years to after the trail had been completed, and the very same person—when he saw me out behind his house again, this time standing on the trail—he came out and said, ‘I owe you an apology. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to our neighborhood. When I get home from work, I can walk right out my door and get on the trail. It’s very peaceful, like a linear park, and I want to thank you.’”
Jerry Kane, former managing director of Madison County Trails, about the MCT Goshen Trail (Source: Trail of the Month, January 2020)
Helpful Tips and Techniques
You can take various approaches when working with people who may oppose your rail-trail project. But in general, you should always stress the benefits of rail-trails and keep adjacent landowners involved in the process. Use the Meeting in a Box and other RTC resources to support your case and develop presentation materials for meetings with the community. Here are 10 techniques you may find helpful:
Reach OutDon't wait for nearby residents to learn about your proposal by reading about it in the newspaper. Talk to them directly, either by traveling door-to-door, circulating an open letter or giving a presentation at a community gathering.
ListenTake time to understand why adjacent landowners are opposed to the trail. Many of their concerns stem from fear of the unknown. Listen carefully, address specific concerns and try to arrive at solutions that benefit as many people as possible. While you may think these concerns are unreasonable, your opponents take their interests, however misinformed they might seem to you, seriously. Never trivialize your opposition's concerns.
Find AlliesAmong the people who live adjacent to the proposed rail-trail, you may find bicyclists, walkers, runners, horseback riders, families with active children or individuals with disabilities—all of whom represent likely trail supporters. Seek out these individuals, explain the trail’s benefits, and urge them to get involved in supporting the project.
Get InvolvedEstablish a trail advisory committee, and ask adjacent residents to serve along with advocates and user groups. Often, when given a chance to participate in the process, a group of adjacent landowners may be more willing to work toward developing solutions.
Enlist ConvertsIf your group has some travel money, invite an articulate landowner who was once opposed to a rail-trail to come and speak in your community. Hearing the story of how an opponent became a trail advocate can help allay the concerns of future trail neighbors.
Build ConsensusIf you are having difficulty building consensus, consider enlisting a third party to identify the concerns of trail opponents and trail supporters. Bring in someone who is respected and trusted by both sides, such as an official from the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program or your state department of conservation.
Be PositiveAlthough it may be difficult at times, do not react in anger to claims that trail opponents make. No matter how unpleasant a discussion becomes, always treat everyone with fairness and sincerity. Be firm, factual and reasonable.
Work HardDon't let outspoken opponents sidetrack your project. Identify milder opponents of the trail and those individuals who are still undecided. Work hard to address the concerns of these individuals and convert them to your cause; they can add to your majority and help persuade other detractors.
DifferentiateA completed rail-trail is quite different from an abandoned railroad corridor. Clearly inform people who are unhappy with a littered, overgrown and unmanaged corridor that a developed rail-trail is managed and maintained, has permitted uses and trail rules and often enhances the surrounding landscape.
Work the MediaFavorable coverage in the media helps defuse the opposition and generate support for your cause. Give your project the best opportunity for positive exposure by supplying television, radio and newspaper reporters and editors with interesting and accurate factual information.