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Utilizing Irrigation Canals in Northern Utah for Recreational Trail Use: An Evaluation of Issues and Concerns

Table of contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | References | Questionnaire | Interview A | Interview B | Interview C | Interview D | Interview E | Interview



“When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else.”

                                                John Muir


Opposition from adjacent landowners presents the greatest potential obstacle to trail development, as it is these individuals who have a direct interest in what happens in their backyard.  The ability to work effectively with and understand the perceptions of this group of people is fundamental for the success of trail initiatives.  It is always more than worth the effort to meet with and carefully listen to the concerns of individuals who are effected in any way by a proposed trail (Flink, and Searns, 1993).  Simply acquiring the land that cross their property lines is trivial without the association of effectively addressing their concerns. With their support, adjacent landowners can be powerful allies along the road to completing and maintaining a trail project.   

It takes only a few opponents to halt a project.  Resistance from these few opponents can result in bureaucratic dormancy and financial difficulties.  The concerns these individuals have usually stem from fear of the unknown and anxiety about the effects of the trail on their quality of life.  Regardless of whether their concerns have merit or are a result of misinformation, “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) attitudes, territorial instincts, etc, have proven to be very capable of inflicting terminal damage on trail projects.  To take even one opponent lightly could have negative consequences on the outcome of a trail project.  When these fears and concerns are not energetically addressed and acknowledged at the very outset of a project, five percent opposition may as well be one hundred percent opposition. 

Trails are public works projects which have to go through a public approval process.  Trails serve an important public interest, so it is an unfortunate loss to the community as a whole when they are blocked by individual opposition or special interest politics.  It is important to remember that, after all is said and done, it is a lack of information and unanswered criticism of trail proposals which usually fuel opposition to trail projects  (Doherty, 1998).

Due to the linear nature of trails, they not only cross legal and political boundaries but also have varying impacts on adjacent land uses along the length of the corridor.  The term “adjacent landowner” is not only exclusive to the urban or suburban homeowner but also includes the rural farmer or rancher whose concerns expand to the impacts of the trail on their livelihood.  It is for this reason that agriculturalists will have particularly strong concerns.  Although issues vary depending on the particular situation there are some general concerns that all of these landowners share whether the project is a rail-trail, canal-trail, or any other form of recreational trail.  The outstanding concerns that are heard most often from adjacent landowners are a fear of increased crime, decreased property values, increase in liability and trail design and management.

There are numerous published studies which examine these fears, concerns and perceptions.  Summaries of studies related to these general concerns are noted within this chapter.  These studies have concluded that once a trail is opened a majority of the perceived problems associated with trail development do not materialize.

            Jennifer Harrington, the former senior landscape architect for Park City, Utah and instrumental in the development of the Park City Rail-Trail, suggests that “the adjacent landowner issue is a “red herring”. (phone interview)  There are always going to be adjacent landowners opposed to trail development.  While studies and testimonials offer a good starting point in developing support for a project, they are meaningless and irrelevant if not accompanied with broad minded discussion of what is really important and valuable to the community as a whole.  It is easier to change someone’s mind with sincere interest and response to their concerns, than throwing figures and tables at them.  As Harrington notes, “the documents [studies] help the community planners, not so much the immediate adjacent landowner, because they can see another community has looked at this.”

While the studies reviewed in this chapter can be useful in the development of trails, the political, social, and economic factors surrounding these studies vary.  Other parts of the country may have a more or less favorable environment for trail development.  As already pointed out, studies such as this one and the ones listed above are not going to get trails built by themselves, as facts, figures and statistics, but can be beneficial as guides.




Increased Crime

 This category includes issues such as vandalism, trespass, burglary, privacy, safety, and littering.  Because the development of a trail opens the corridor to the general public, adjacent landowners view this as an invitation for “undesirable outsiders”  to threaten their existing sense of safety.  It is often perceived that what was once a nice informal trail that only the immediate local community used, will now be open to “all walks of life” from the larger community.  It is important however, to note that trails not only benefit the community as a whole but also benefit the adjacent landowner as well.  What was once an unmanaged and dangerous quasi-public space becomes a managed and maintained amenity.   Studies have concluded that trails are safe places for local residents and visitors to enjoy.   

·                    In a survey in which 372 trail managers reported crimes against persons or property committed on their trails during 1995 and 1996, only eleven rail-trails in 1995 and ten rail-trails in 1996 had experienced any type of major crime (3% of responding trails).  According to this study major crimes included mugging, assault, forcible rape and murder.  In a comparison of urban, suburban and rural trails, only three urban trails reported assaults in 1995 and 1996.  According to this same study, only one fourth of the rail-trail managers reported any type of minor crime, such as graffiti or littering and these problems were corrected as part of a routine trail management program.  In a letter from a law enforcement official it was noted that litter was virtually nonexistent on a section of converted trail, but was overwhelming on portions which had not been converted  (Tracy, and Morris, 1998).

·                    A 1980 study by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources compared adjacent landowner attitudes on a pair of proposed trails (Root River and Soo Line) with the attitudes of landowners along two established trails (Douglas and Heartland).  On the proposed trails 75% of landowners thought that if a trail was constructed it would mean more vandalism and other crimes.  By contrast, virtually no landowners (0% and 6% respectively) along the established trails agreed with the statement “trail users steal”.  In response to the statement “summer users trespass”, only 5% of the landowners along the two established trails agreed  (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 1980).

·                    Eight years after the Minnesota DNR study a graduate student interviewed the same adjacent landowners along the rural Root River and another established urban trail (Luce Line).  According to this study, 73% of all landowners view the Root River and Luce Line Trails as a desirable feature.  According to the author, “The increase in the desirability rating on the Root River is due to a change in the attitude of farmland residents who owned property prior to trail development.”  A majority of all landowners (85%) did not experience major problems with the trails.  80% of the landowners believe the trails do not increase the rate of violent crime  (Mazour, 1988).

·                    A study of the effects of urban trails on crime and real estate values, completed as a joint project of the Conservation Fund and Colorado State Trails Program, surveyed and interviewed real estate agents, police and residents along three Denver-area trails.  The trails ranged from a paved greenway trail through a low-income neighborhood to a crusher fines canal trail in an upscale suburb.  The study found that serious public safety concerns have not arisen in neighborhoods with urban trails running through them and there is strong support for urban trail by residents who live either adjacent to a trail or within one block.  The general opinion was that the trails are an amenity to the neighborhoods around them  (The Conservation Fund and Colorado State Parks State Trails Program, 1995). 

·                In another study of the 12.1 mile long Burke Gilman Trail in Seattle, the purpose was to determine what effect the trail has had on property values and crime affecting property near and adjacent to the trail and to evaluate public acceptance of the trail and the trails effect on the quality of life of adjacent property owners.  Data were collected via telephone interviews of 110 residents.  Residents were asked what problems, if any, they have had with break-ins and vandalism by trail users.  The study concluded that concerns about increased crime due to construction of a multi-use trail were unfounded.  Homes immediately adjacent to the trail did not experience any increase in burglaries and vandalism as a result of the trail.  The results showed that in the eight years of the existence of the trail there was an average of 1.25 break-ins and 0.9 incidents of vandalism per year where a trail user may have been involved.  This was well below the neighborhood average which, given the number of homes along the trail, would expect about five incidents per year.  84.6% of the respondents did not have to make an effort to keep users off of their property.  Not one resident felt that there were problems caused by the trail that warranted its closing.  Police officers interviewed stated that there is not a greater incidence of burglaries and vandalism of homes adjacent to the trail mostly due to restricted vehicle use  (Seattle Office for Planning, 1987).

·                A 1992 study by the National Park Service which evaluated the impacts of rail-trails on nearby property owners found that, overall, trail neighbors had experienced relatively few problems associated with the trail.  The problems most frequently reported by landowners were unleashed and roaming pets, illegal motor vehicle use and litter on or near their property.  A majority of the landowners reported that since the opening of the trial there had been no increase in problems, living near the trail was better than expected and better than living adjacent to the unused rail corridor before construction of the trail  (National Park Service, 1992).

·                The purpose of another study done as part of a senior project in Santa Rosa California, was to determine what effect, if any, a bicycle and pedestrian trail (Brush Creek Trail) has on the values of properties and crime rates.  The results of the seventy five survey responses do not support claims that trails adjacent to residences cause an increase in crime and suggest that the Brush Creek Trail does not cause an increase in crime.  In a question in which the residents were asked if they have directly experienced any crime where someone from the trail was involved, 80% responded no.  Of the twenty percent that responded yes, the most common types of vandalism included “kids throwing eggs” and “kids broke fence”.  When asked how the trail effects their sense of privacy, 53% stated it had no effect on privacy and 30.7 % felt it decreases privacy slightly.  Considering the trail has been open for nine years these crimes are very minor in nature.  The most overwhelming opinion of the residents (65%) is that the trail has a positive effect on the quality of life in the neighborhood (Murphy, 1992). 

·                The purpose of another study was to examine the effects of the 35 mile long, multi-use Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail, located in upstate New York, on adjacent residential property, including the types and extent of trail related problems experienced by trail neighbors.  While there were some disadvantages expressed by some adjacent homeowners, most reported being satisfied with the trail as a neighbor and experiencing relatively low rates of trail-related problems.  Only 12.2 percent of the residents reported being unsatisfied with the trail as a neighbor and 75.9 percent reported that trail users do not pose a risk to their personal and family safety.  8.2 percent had no opinion and 15.9 percent said yes.  The respondents were presented with a list of twelve possible problems associated with the trail and its users which ranged from “litter on/ near my property” to “users harass my pets”.  These were scaled from 1 (not a problem) to 5 (major problem).  Five of the items had means just above two and seven had means below two.  Even for the worst perceived problem “litter on/ near my property”, 41 percent reported that its “not a problem” and 14 percent reported that it’s a “major problem”.  When given the opportunity to add additional items not listed, illegal motor vehicle use was listed the most as a problem, followed by teenagers partying at night in the summer and loss of privacy (Schenectady County Department of Planning, 1997). 


As illustrated in the summaries above, the experiences of serious problems with crime associated with developed trails are negligible.  Two reasons frequently cited by police officers are that there is usually controlled vehicular access to the trail, via Bollard’s or fences that are opened by maintenance personnel only, and there is a  “policing effect” of dedicated and observant trail users who report suspicious activities. 

·                    According to a study which evaluated trail user demographics, the trail users  were well-educated and earned substantial incomes.  Over 80% of the users surveyed had acquired some college or technical training, and 26% had earned advanced degrees.  The surveys also showed that the leading occupation categories were white collar, professional and technical (33%) and  15% were managers and proprietors (Illinois Statewide Trail User Study, 1990). 

·                    Another study of user demographics concluded that the majority of the trails users (69 percent) traveled less than five miles to get to the trail and a significant percentage of users (47 percent) appear to be dedicated repeat users, reporting uses of once a week or more  (Schenectady County Department of Planning, 1997). 

·                    This is supported by another study in which “many users reported using the trail twice daily, for “fresh air” or walking their dogs”  (National Park Service, 1992). 


Factual information and testimonials from police who patrol trail areas will go a long way to easing landowner concerns over increased crime.  The presence of voluntary or professional trail patrols equipped to alert emergency services and  neighborhood watch groups improves enjoyment of the trail.  The main function of these patrols should be to educate users and provide assistance when necessary.  According to a survey of 372 rail-trail managers in urban, suburban and rural areas, 69 percent, 67 percent and 63 percent, respectively, are patrolled in some way  (Tracy and Morris, 1998). 


Decreased Property Values

Along with the other major concerns, a recurring concern expressed by landowners living along proposed multi-use trails is that the development of a trail corridor along their property will decrease their property values and will affect their ability to sell their homes.  There are numerous case studies which have determined what effect trails have on the property values of adjacent landowners.  These studies have concluded that trails have no adverse effects on the value of property adjacent to trails and in most instances result in enhanced value and increased salability.  They have also concluded that trails positively stimulate local economies.  (See Economic Impacts: Chapter III for a description of studies/findings regarding impacts of trails on property values.)  


Increased Liability

Adjacent landowners fear that a trail user will wander onto their property, injure themselves and hold the landowner liable.  While state law provides a measure of protection for property owners via recreational use statutes (RUS), adjacent landowners are still fearful of potential litigation.  While these statutes cannot prevent landowners from being sued, it does grant them certain protections. The RUS does not grant immunity but it does offer limitations on a landowners liability when they allow recreational use on their property

It should be noted that it is always difficult to predict how a court will interpret the RUS as it is or when it gets amended.  Therefore, despite the significant liability protection Utah’s RUS offers, a landowner may want the additional liability protection of a commercial liability insurance policy due to the circumstances of the public use arrangement.  This insurance can also be purchased by the public entity with the landowner as named as an “additional insured” or “additional named insured” (Carrier and Corbin 1994).   These liability fallbacks will hold more weight than the RUS will in court.   (See Chapter III and Appendix C)


Maintenance and Management

Adjacent landowners are especially sensitive and aware of the management issues, and happen to be major stakeholders in the overall quality of management of the proposed trail.  Therefore, they are going to have grave concerns about the threats a trail will have to their traditional enjoyment of their property and to the aesthetic quality their neighborhood.  They do not want neighboring public lands to become eyesores or junk heaps via careless maintenance.  Some of their major concerns are going to be related to trash pickup, trash deterrents, tree pruning, drainage control, weed control, adequate sanitary facilities and screening.   One reoccurring problem along trails is irresponsible dog owners not picking up after their pets.

Adjacent landowners must be an integral part of a regular maintenance and management plan for the new trail.  The plan should use their knowledge of the existing conditions, their property and the surrounding landscape to better manage the trail.  By including landowners in the management and monitoring of the trail, trail managers can keep in touch with landowners and the landowners develop a sense of ownership of their stretch of trail, thereby creating a few hundred managers who can spot maintenance and manage problems as they occur  (Illinois Department of Conservation, et. al. 1990; Ryan, et. al., 1993).


Fear of Something New

It is a natural human instinct to fear something that is new and untested.  There are many challenges for cities and agencies involved in the establishment of trails along irrigation canal corridors.  Any time something new is proposed there is always going to be a certain amount of anxiety which even in small doses can spread like wildfire and eventually dominate and torpedo any project.  Generally speaking, proposed trail development may be greeted by 25% acceptance, 25% disapproval and 50% indifference.  It’s the 50% who can be swayed in either direction.  Support for a trail cannot be taken for granted and legitimate concerns about the impact of trails need to be addressed openly, early, and often, to prevent those concerns from becoming intense opposition  (Doherty, 1998).  Isolating the most prevalent issues and fears in the very beginning of a project and addressing them throughout the process is the biggest challenge facing any agency or proponent of a canal trail. The solution lies in cooperation between canal companies, municipalities, adjacent landowners and recreationists in order to develop an agreement in which all concerns and needs are carefully and respectively addressed in order to create a “win-win” situation for all effected parties.



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Updated September 1, 2006

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