Don’t let the vocal minority kill your project: How to Deal with Trail Opposition

June 25, 2014

While it is typical to have someone who objects to a proposed trail, in most cases we see an about-face once the trail opens for public use. One property owner actually called me a couple months after the trail opened and apologized for being difficult during construction. She discovered how much she loved the trail! She said that all of the neighbors now meet on the trail where their children are able to safely ride their bikes.

The best way to handle trail opposition is to have a conversation and find the why. Getting to the heart of the matter allows for clarification and, if needed, compromise.

It can be hard for some people to visualize how a trail will benefit them until they have one nearby, but most people eventually come around. And, in the process you meet some interesting people. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • A couple who owned a bed and breakfast along a proposed trail’s route voiced their vehement complaints about anything involving the trail during the design process. They would not allow the contractor to set foot on their property, not even to build a retaining wall at the edge of the right-of-way. After the trail opened, I checked their website, and not only was the trail listed as one of their key attractions, they stocked bicycles for their guests to use!
  • One woman became so upset when the contractor cleared sod from her lawn that she began weeping. As the bulldozer approached, she lay down in its path and wouldn’t get up. Finally, we convinced her that we would replace her precious petunias as soon as the contractor paved the trail.
  • Another time, an anti-government/militia-type person who was opposed to a trail began making vague threats to me. To him, this project represented the government abusing its power. Ironically, he then threatened to call the police and have me put in jail!
  • I once met with an angry man whose body shook as if he was freezing as we talked. Our trail project planned to take out several scrub trees within the right-of-way, which he considered his front yard. This triggered his paranoia, because he felt the trees were the last barrier between him and those out to ‘get’ him. Looking me in the eye he said “I better go inside now. I’m afraid I’ll do something I’ll regret if I don’t.”
  • We try to design our trails to serve as many people as we can. One trail connected a new development with a park, and passed in front of several houses on a busy road. One of those homeowners objected to the trail. His rationale—he was afraid with the trail traffic by his house that someone would steal the tires off his cars.
  • An elderly man was so upset about a trail that he was afraid he would have a heart attack during its construction. His parting words to me were “If I die during this project, you’re to blame, and that’s something you’ll have to live with for the rest of your life.”
  • While a trail was under construction an elderly man emerged from his house carrying his oxygen tank in one arm and waving a shotgun in the other while chasing the contractor away from his yard. This was his not-so-subtle way of voicing his displeasure with a new trail.
  • When a utility line is accidentally cut, I always hope that it is a “non-essential” service like electricity or telephone; homeowners are more understanding of these mishaps than when it’s their cable TV line that’s cut!!

Scott Post is a board member at the West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition. He has designed nearly 150 miles of non-motorized trails in Michigan.


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