Railroad trail connections assembled

by Paul Rignell

Contributing writer

If there are Elk River or Zimmerman residents who have held to resolutions for 2013 by walking, jogging or biking more, they may be pleased to know Sherburne County is closer to giving them another off-road option for years to come.

A deal to buy easement Jan. 8 from Waste Management and Elk River Landfill Inc. along an abandoned Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line gives the county its last quarter-mile link needed to pave and extend the recreational Great Northern Trail from where it ends in Elk River to the Zimmerman line.

The county agreed to a purchase from this last property owner for merely a picture of Alexander Hamilton, or rather a $10 bill. “I think that’s just about what we can afford,” said Commissioner Rachel Leonard, who represents the Zimmerman and Livonia Township residents who will use the improved trail.

Commissioner Bruce Anderson, who was elected to join the board this month to represent most of Elk River, had worked on a special contract as the county’s lead in approaching the former easement holders toward this goal after retiring as sheriff in 2009.

He noted this week that people already use the trail between the cities, unpaved as it is but mown and maintained by the county. “It’s well-utilized,” he said.

Waste Management and Elk River Landfill really have made a gift to these communities. Anderson added that at market value, the county could have owed a six-figure settlement for the easement on the property at 22460 Highway 169. “We’ve saved a lot of money on the county end,” he said. “We’d be talking hundreds of thousands.”

County and landfill representatives were joined at the official vote by long-time county parks commissioners Ron Burley and Jim Nystrom.

“This is a great help,” said Nystrom, who is still on the county commission, of the sale. “(The paving) is feasible now, and I think it will happen.”

Burley said it has been a top priority for the county’s park and trail supporters since their commission formed in the 1990s. “People had the vision years before the parks commission was established,” he told the Star News.

As little as the county had to relinquish for the landfill easement, bituminous work to cover the trail will take significantly more. “We don’t have the budget yet for that part,” said Leonard. The county has options to apply for grants from the state Department of Natural Resources and other sources.

When the paving happens, it will enhance a route of recreation for residents of all ages as they choose to get out and move without cars or other motorized vehicles, perhaps from Elk River to Zimmerman and back, or vice versa.

But coaches and other personnel from the two community high schools are thrilled at the thought of someday having a safe practice path where their cross-country runners and other athletes can cover miles after school while off of busy streets.

Athletic directors Jaime Hilyar from Zimmerman and Mike Cunningham from Elk River joined Burley and Nystrom, the county board and landfill officials at the Jan. 8 meeting. Cunningham took a minute or so at the microphone, wearing a windbreaker in his school colors of red, white and black. “Today is one of those days when it’s great to be an Elk,” he said.