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Licking Township bike path fight goes to court

LICKING TOWNSHIP – Debate over a proposed Licking Township bicycle path is now in the hands of the courts.

Last week, Licking County Prosecutor Ken Oswalt sent the dispute between the Evans Foundation and residents who live along the rail bed of the former Buckeye Scenic Railway to Licking County Common Pleas Court.

"We have no part of it," said Licking County Commissioner Tim Bubb. "It’s out of the commissioners’ hands at this point." Commissioner Mark Van Buren added that since the commissioners are named in the lawsuit, they probably shouldn’t comment on the situation at all.

To review, the T.J. Evans Foundation plans to pave the former rail bed to extend a bike path from Heath through Licking Township to US 40 at Lakewood High School. Property owners who live along the former railroad claim that the foundation has no right to do so because the property owners whose land the former rail bed crosses actually own the land. The railroad’s right to use the property was lost when the tracks were removed, they contend.

Foundation members and supporters claim that their purchase of the railroad gives it the right to turn the former rail bed into a bike trail.

On July 30, some property owners parked vehicles – including a semi truck – and construction machinery on the rail bed to stop the Shelly Company from laying asphalt. Now it’s up to a judge.

According to an Aug. 7 Licking County Prosecutor’s Office press release, the office filed a civil suit in Licking County Common Pleas Court seeking to have the court determine ownership of the property. The county is clearly taking no position on the merits of the dispute, the release states.

Representatives from both sides voluntarily committed to cease any activity on the rail bed until the court decides otherwise.

Oswalt commended both sides for agreeing to handle the situation peacefully and professionally. He wasn’t willing to estimate how long the court proceedings may take or how expensive they may become. "It’s really impossible to tell," he said. There are simply too many "ifs" and too many people who may wish to weigh in on the issue.

No matter what, Oswalt believes it is much better to have the issue in court as a civil dispute than to allow it to spiral out of control and possibly become a criminal case.

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