COLUMBIA — Fueled by fear, members of the Columbia Audubon Society made a deal in order to protect their land as best they could.
At the City Council meeting Monday, members expressed concern that if they didn't make a compromise, they would completely lose control of the land that the city plans to build a trail on. The compromise came after months of impasse.
Before the vote, there was an intense, hour-long public hearing in which most speakers opposed the idea of running the Scott's Branch Trail through the southern end of the Columbia Audubon Nature Sanctuary, located west of Columbia.
But when public comments were done, the council voted unanimously in favor of allowing it.
Several council members said they appreciated and welcomed the compromise but were surprised to hear that some speakers were concerned that the city would simply take the land through a process called eminent domain if the society did not comply.
Eminent domain is a process that allows a government to take private property for public use as long as the owner is reasonably compensated.
“I would never support the eminent domain procedure,” Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill said. “I do resent the insinuation that it was forced upon.”
Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley also said the council had no intention of using eminent domain, according to a previous Missourian article.
The city wants to construct the trail to make the sanctuary more accessible, especially to people who use wheelchairs or have disabilities. However, opponents say the trail is unnecessary and harmful to the wildlife, which goes against the intent of the property.
The Columbia Audubon Society owns the sanctuary property. The society's board recently agreed to a compromise with the city. The most important stipulations the board proposed are:
The Audubon Society must grant final approval of the trail.
- No trees will be removed or destroyed.
- The trail will be limited to 8 feet wide, with a 2-foot easement on either side.
- No dogs will be allowed on Audubon property.
- No switchback (a zigzag path on a steep incline) will be allowed on the portion of the trail passing through the sanctuary.
- A parking lot to access the trail will be built off Cunningham Road.
Howard Hinkel, president of the Columbia Audubon Society, said the compromise “is rooted in our concerns with the property.”
“We believe the compromise affords us considerable input into the planning and construction of the trail,” Hinkel said during the public hearing.
The city will continue negotiating with the Audubon Society over remaining issues, including the surface of the trail. The society wants a permeable surface such as gravel, which is more natural-looking, but a report from city staff recommends a concrete one.
According to the report, "the resulting wash-out of the gravel and required maintenance will impact the environment much more so than a concrete surface."
After hearing the discussion, several council members sided with using a permeable surface.
The construction of the entire Scott’s Branch Trail is expected to begin this year and is set to cost $980,000. It will start at Rollins Road, pass through Bonnie View Nature Sanctuary and eventually link with the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail from south Scott Boulevard.
The project was part of a pilot program designed to promote non-motorized transportation, locally named GetAbout Columbia. Columbia was one of four communities that received $22 million in the form of a federal grant.
On Monday, it was obvious that the public in attendance didn't want the sanctuary land touched. Mayor Bob McDavid had to remind the crowd more than once to refrain from applause, so as not to intimidate speakers with differing opinions.
Catherine Parke, a Columbia citizen, told the council that she collected 54 signatures on a petition opposing the trail and urged the council to vote no on trail construction.
"(The sanctuary) is something to be genuinely proud of," Parke said after the public hearing. "It's something unique to Columbia."
Hinkel said at the hearing that the Audubon society is not the first, nor will it be the last, to lose a debate on the most appropriate use of the natural world.
"Such debates go on every day and everywhere," he said.
Missourian reporter Laura Heck contributed to this article.