Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

May 8, 2013

Trails dispute sparks lawsuit

Farmers, trails group remain at odds

By Scott Smith
Tribune staff writer

— The Friends of the Nickel Plate Trail received a rude surprise in March,when someone clear cut brush and trees alongside the trail north of Deedsville.

Who the “someone” was didn’t remain a mystery for long. A local farmer told Miami County Sheriff investigators that he cut down the trees and brush on the 1,500-foot long stretch under the belief the wooded area was part of his uncle’s farm property.

The trails advocates, who filed suit last week in hopes of recovering damages, aren’t buying the story.

That’s partly because they’ve already had a run-in with the property owner. Last March, Jerry Piotter, 66, Macy, was arrested on a misdemeanor battery charge after a physical confrontation with three trails volunteers.

Piotter, who’d never been arrested before, received pre-trial diversion for the incident, which involved an alleged shove. Now his nephew, Arnold Piotter, 22, Macy, is facing a misdemeanor mischief charge in connection with the brush cutting.

“You look between Kokomo and Rochester, we’ve only had a few issues,” Friends president Mike Kuepper said Monday. “There’s just a few people still being stubborn about it, I guess.”

For Piotter and some northern Miami County property owners, resentment over the trail has been lingering.

“They’ve lied like hell since day one over what they said they’d do,” Piotter said Tuesday, saying the trails volunteers have failed to fix damage they caused to his field drainage and to a crossing he uses to access his fields.

“They just act like us property owners are a piece [of dirt]. They don’t want to do any cooperation with the property owners,” he said.

The members of the Friends group, who have extended the trail north all the way to Rochester over the past few years, are familiar with the seemingly endless debate over who owns the trail right-of-way.

Trails advocate Charlie Skoog, Kokomo, said the problem dates back to the passage of the federal “railbanking” law, which gave a huge boost to rails-to-trails projects like the Nickel Plate.

“A lot of these people don’t accept the railbanking law as legitimate,” Skoog said. “They don’t think [the trail] has a right to exist.”

The Nickel Plate is built on an old rail line, and the rail line was originally built on deeded easements.

Many of the farmers along the rail line wanted to see those easements revert to the original property owner when the railroad abandoned the line. Instead, the railbanking law allowed trails advocates to use the easements for a trail. Attorneys representing landowners are currently in the process of trying to obtain compensation from the federal government.

Asked if he thinks the trail is there legally, Piotter answered carefully.

“Go down to the [Miami County] Courthouse, and you’ll find I’ve paid taxes on this ground for 46 years,” Piotter said. “I’ve got the deed. That pretty much makes it mine.”

Despite his skepticism over the railbanking law, Piotter said he accepts the trail. He said he just wants the trail builders to respect neighboring property.

Trails advocates, however, say the Piotters aren’t respecting their property.

They’ve got a court “no contact” order against Jerry Piotter and they’re seeking court action over the clear-cutting incident.

Three volunteers were working on the trail north of Deedsville last March when they were approached by Piotter, according to a Miami County Sheriff probable cause affidavit.

Piotter told deputies that he confronted the men, who were fixing washouts along the trail, over property damage claims.

He said he got angry when one of the men, Friends vice president Bill Click, ignored him. Piotter said he grabbed Click by the shirt collar. After words were exchanged, Piotter said he was confronted by one of the volunteers, who Piotter said was pointing a pitchfork.

“Piotter said he was close enough to [the victim] to reach out and grab the pitchfork to take it from him. He said when he grabbed the pitchfork, [the victim] fell to the ground,” the police report states.

Piotter was charged with battery, but that charge was dropped after a year went by without further incident. Piotter wouldn’t comment on the circumstances but is clearly still upset.

“There’s never been a police car in my driveway the entire time I’ve lived here,” he said. “I’m almost 67 years old, and some idiot calls the police on me.”

The Friends of the trail say the clear-cutting incident was just one in a string of problems they’ve had and they say they want it all to end. They’re asking the court to order a new survey of the property along the trail, and to enjoin all of the defendants — Jerry, Caroline and Arnold Piotter — from coming on the trail property.

They’re also asking for damages. In addition to the early March clear-cutting incident, the trails advocates are also claiming they discovered on April 2 that a fire had been set “on or near” trails property. The lawsuit blames Carol Piotter for setting it.

This is at least the second time the trails group has been to court with an adjoining Miami County property owner. In 2003, the group accused a farmer of planting crops on the trail easement. That suit, brought by the Indiana Trails Foundation, was dismissed in 2004.

Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com