Six months ago, Hardin County Government closed the Youngers Creek Trail — a trail a local mountain biker said was used by numerous organizations throughout the area and even drew in enthusiasts from outside the region.

Damon Barnes and other trail enthusiasts are urging the government to reopen the trails and asking what the county’s plans are for recreation.

The Youngers Creek trails were started in 2002 when Hardin Fiscal Court approved an agreement with the Central Kentucky Wheelmen to develop biking trails on the Pearl Hollow Landfill property.

Hardin County Deputy Judge-Executive Daniel London said the initial set of trails involved six miles with the vision to expand to 10 1/2 miles. He said Hardin County Government provided in-kind services such as parking grading and trail head maintenance.

Then on July 14, 2006, the Central Kentucky Wheelmen were awarded a Recreational Trails Program grant for $34,357 to improve the trails, construct an additional five miles of trails and to significantly improve the trail head.

“For a few years after the initial construction of the trails, they were used heavily. In recent years, use has dramatically decreased,” London said.

Barnes said traffic on the trails slowed when the property was logged in 2011. He said significant damage was done to the trails and they weren’t usable for a long period of time.

Between 2014 and 2015, machinery was rented by the biking group and the trails were repaired near their original state. Around this same time, Barnes said the landfill began to repeatedly push debris and trees onto the trails.

Between 2015 and when the county closed trails in June, Barnes said there was a mountain biking race that attracted more than 100 riders. He said Running Soles also has held group runs there.

“Bikers, hikers, and trail runners were using the trail daily,” he said. “We weren’t able to have a another race this year because it got shut down.”

London said permission from Fiscal Court, the agreements and continued use was all based upon the involved organizations maintaining liability insurance to protect Hardin County taxpayers from injury claims.

Hardin County Government and the Kentucky Mountain Bike Association, Lincoln Trails Chapter, entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the property in October 2015.

London said agreements require volunteer construction and maintenance of the trails and facilities at Pearl Hollow with Hardin County Government having the final approval for all trail expansion. He said all agreements require organizations using the trails to maintain liability insurance to protect Hardin County taxpayers from injury claims due to the incredible risks involved in hiking near an industrial site utilizing what is in essence an open pit.

London said the liability insurance expired June 6, 2018.

“Leading up to this date and for a short period after expiration of the insurance policy, Hardin County Government staff made numerous attempts to contact the parties involved with no response,” he said.

As a result, a letter was sent on June 22, 2018 to the parties notifying them they were in default and Hardin County Government was terminating the agreement as a result.

London said administration and enforcement of agreements and contracts approved by Fiscal Court is a function of the judge-executive and therefore do not require further consideration by the Fiscal Court.

Barnes reached out to London shortly after the letter of termination was sent out. In an email to Barnes in June, London said that in addition to the insurance lapse, maintenance had significantly declined over time, encroachment into the landfill operation had become a key safety concern and their insurance carrier advised they would not cover any claim in excess of the insurance limits. He also wrote in the email the county was advised by their insurance carrier that they should require a minimum of $10 million in coverage from any cycling group to ensure proper coverage for the county.

In October, biker Justin Wallace of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet also reached out to London, voicing his concern about the decision to close the Youngers Creek trails. In his email, Wallace said he has ridden bikes on those trails since he was in seventh grade and would like to be able to continue to do so.

“Over the years there have been more and more people riding out there and maintaining the trails, myself included,” he wrote in the Oct. 26 email. He said a lack of volunteers has never been an issue and also volunteered to be a point of contact to assist with any maintenance out at the trails.

“I was told the trail head concerns are about the pavilion that was built out there years ago. This is a legitimate concern as it is constantly vandalized but I can assure you that was not done by the people that are using the trails and it is not fair to the ones that have donated their time and money to be punished for the crimes of others.”

In regard to the $10 million in coverage, in further correspondence with London, Wallace listed several organizations, including U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nolin Lake, Warren County Parks and Recreation and Bowling Green Parks and Recreation having a policy between $1 million and $2 million for the mountain bike trails in their area.

“I have ridden all of these trails and Youngers Creek is no more dangerous than any of them,” he wrote.

When asked about future plans for the land, London said the primary use of the property always has been industrial (landfill).

“This has presented significant challenges as trails have been expanded into the landfill area without approval from Hardin County Government,” he said, noting the increase that causes to taxpayer liability in the case of injury to trail users.

Youngers Creek is the second recreational area the county has closed in recent years. The county also closed Taylor’s Bend Park. The county funded Taylor’s Bend through a $12,000 Land and Water Conservation Fund awarded in 1969.

“I would love to hear what (the county’s) vision is for recreation in Hardin County,” Barnes said. By closing recreation areas, Barnes said the county is missing out on a substantial amount of tourism.

London said desire among Fiscal Court members for additional recreational opportunities exists, but taxpayer funds to fund the projects do not.

“As Judge-Executive Harry Berry often states when speaking about the county’s budget, our revenue only supports ‘have-to-have programs, not good-to-have and wish-to-have,’” he said.

In addition, London said recreational projects in the unincorporated portion of the county are a significant logistical challenge to maintain and police, significantly increasing the amount of money required to maintain them due to vandalism and unlawful activity.

Jodie Williams of the Department for Local Government Office said since the lease where the trails were located is no longer valid, there isn’t anything the agency can do requiring the county to reopen the trails.

“The only thing we can do is to encourage the county to come in with a RTP grant to create and provide maintenance to the trails,” Williams said in an email.

She said the 2019 application is available on the Department of Local Government website with a May 1 deadline.

“The nonprofit worked so hard on the trail project and put forth effort in expanding mountain biking trails in Kentucky,” she said. “I hate that this has happened.”

Mary Alford can be reached at 270-505-1741 or malford@thenewsenterprise.com.

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