Ag-backed trail bill passes Idaho Legislature

John O'Connell/Capital Press Nancy Greco, left, and Lynda Montgomery walk the Portneuf Greenway March 17 in south Pocatello, Idaho. Past discussions about connecting the paved path through private property using condemnation led to a bill that recently passed the Idaho Legislature, barring the use of eminent domain for recreational trails.

POCATELLO, Idaho — A bill barring the use of eminent domain to build recreational paths is headed to Gov. Butch Otter for his signature.

It is supported by the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation and other agricultural organizations.

In February, the Senate voted 20-13 to pass S1044, and the House approved it with a 54-15-1 vote on March 16. The bill’s author, Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, said Otter plans to sign it, though a spokesman for the governor could not be reached for comment.

Guthrie, a farmer and rancher, said he became aware of the need for the legislation a few years ago, when he was a Bannock County commissioner. Property owners told him of the City of Pocatello’s threats to condemn their land to connect segments of a paved path following the Portneuf River, called the Portneuf Greenway.

Guthrie said farmers and ranchers far beyond the city limits were concerned by the Portneuf Greenway Foundation’s goals at the time of continuing the trail for up to 30 miles into the county.

“People tend to want those greenways along the rivers, and they go right through farm land,” Guthrie said. “That was a big concern of some in the agricultural community.”

In 2011, as a member of Idaho’s House of Representatives, Guthrie introduced the first version of the bill. It passed the House but died without a hearing in a Senate committee. Following his election to the Senate, Guthrie reintroduced the bill in 2013, but it again failed to pass out of committee. He decided to give the legislation a final try this session.

Guthrie believes building trails will still be possible, but negotiations with property owners will have to take place in good faith. Guthrie believes the bill will be important for property owners throughout the state, based on the dozens of emails he’s received from Idaho city leaders opposing it.

In the case of the Portneuf Greenway, foundation board president Rory Erchul believes the bill was unnecessary. He said the board has long since abandoned plans to use eminent domain and has instead moved on to building other sections of trail, following a master plan calling for a triangle of trails around Pocatello and Chubbuck.

But Erchul also contends greenway trails serve the public good, providing nonmotorized transportation routes and enticing businesses to locate in communities. The choice of using eminent domain to complete them should be a local issue, he argued. Erchul noted the Portneuf Greenway’s former intention was to use eminent domain on public rights-of-way through private property, on river levees built and maintained with taxpayer funding.

Idaho Farm Bureau spokesman John Thompson disagrees that the public good served by trail building warrants encroaching on private property.

“There’s no right to recreate. There are plenty of ways to exercise that don’t include taking somebody’s land,” Thompson said. “If governments and municipalities are allowed to take people’s property at will, why even own private property?”

Thompson considers Guthrie to be a “patriot” for sticking with his bill in the face of strong criticism.

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