Mountaineer Trail Network mountain biking bill working its way through Legislature again

CHARLESTON – A bill to create a network of mountain bike trails to enhance tourism in north-central West Virginia died on the last day of last year’s legislative session. But local legislators and community leaders hope to see it through this year.

To that end, there are five bills in the system to create a Mountaineer Trail Network Recreation Authority. All told, they have a combined sponsorship of 10 senators and 13 delegates of both parties.

Four of them are identical: SB 15 and 132 and HB 2420 and 2484. They would create the authority to serve Monongalia, Preston, Marion, Harrison and Taylor counties.

The fifth is more expansive and would permit any three or more counties in the state to form a multi-county trail network authority. It’s SB 317 and it’s the one that’s moving through the system. It’s passed out of the Natural Resources committee and awaiting an agenda slot in Judiciary.

“I honestly think the bill has a very good chance of passing this year,” said Sen. Bob Beach, who is lead sponsor on one of the four local bills.

FEOH Realty founder Jason Donahue, of Morgantown, is helping to push the effort and explained how it could benefit the area during a visit to the Capitol and in a phone interview.

As The Dominion Post’s Ben Conley has reported, Donahue previously helped push similar legislation while working as the economic development director in Logan County. Those efforts led to the creation of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System.

“The primary goal is an economic development project,” Donahue said. The trail network could increase the number of tourist attractions and thereby the number of tourists.

“Mountain biking enthusiasts are a substantial size market of tourists that we can attract to West Virginia with the trail network,” said. Millions of bikes are sold yearly, with mountain bikes forming the largest percentage.

North-central West Virginia is open to a good market within a four to five hour travel time, he said. Mountain bikers tend to travel twice per year to go biking, staying two to three days and spending $400 per trip. “If we get thousands of people coming in, the impact on the economy would be pretty substantial pretty quick.”

Trail backers envision not a single trail, he said, but a network of trails that start and stop at a common point for reach trail. They would try to build them as close to amenities as possible – hotels, restaurants, entertainment, shopping – and make those amenities part of the attraction.

Each network would offer different trails for different skill levels, from family friendly to expert.

He lists a handful of places that would offer ideal sites: University Towne Centre, Mylan Park, Charles Point and White Oaks in Bridgeport, the Fairmont High Tech Consortium park. All have substantial amounts of land not going to be developed. Trails cold be designed and built to complement the plan development of those projects.

Donahue said supporters have no ballpark figure on initial or annual investment at this point, he said. It all depends on the scale. Obviously, there will be some initial investment to build them, but it shouldn’t be astronomically expensive because each trail is only 1.5 to 2 feet wide.

They won’t be aim to build a lot of trails at once, but will add trails over time. “I would envision the development of the trail network to be very incremental,” a trail or two every year for a long time. It wouldn’t be prudent to be too aggressive, to make sure expenses don’t outpace revenue.

The bill

Last year’s fizzled bill was HB 4431, sponsored by former Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, plus eight other local delegates. It died on the last night over disagreement on House amendments to the Senate amendments.

That bill and these are all built on the Hatfield-McCoy system legislation, but exclude motorized traffic such as ATVs.

SB 317, the statewide, three-county bill, would allow three or more adjacent to create a network authority to develop and operate a trail system.

They envision significant portions of the network crossing private land. Network authority boards would have the power to buy or lease land or obtain easements for trail construction.

Trail users would pay a permit fee for access. They would be subject to various rules: wear helmets (at the discretion of the board), don’t bring alcohol; don’t light fires outside designated campsites; don’t operate motor vehicles on the trail.

Supporter comments

Delegate Rodney Pyles, D-Monongalia, is a co-sponsor on both Hose bill. Referring to last year’s failed bill, he said, “The pushback last year was from southern counties who have the Hatfield-McCoy network.” They were wary of the potential competition at first, but came around.

Donahue noted that north-central has a significant amount of one thing those southern trail counties are short on: places to stay. That should serve as a draw to a Mountaineer Network.

Beach described how SB 317 evolved, taking the Mountaineer Network bill and expanding it to include other counties, but adding a focus on ATVs and other motorized trail vehicles that failed to fly. SoATVs were eliminated and portions of his bill and the other Senate bill were incorporated.

“We’ve got a little bit cleaner bill,” he said. With the motorized vehicles gone, he said, one of the other Senate sponsors characterized it as being about good health, along with tourism.

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, lead sponsor on one of the House bills, said, “I don’t care who gets credit. I want to make sure that we have good public policy. And that’s something that’s agreed on in our community we want to move forward on.”

The Mon County Commission has backed the bill both years. Commission President Tom Bloom said, “We’re not completely thrilled with it, but it’s 90 percent of what we had in our bill and it’s got legs and it’s moving.”

Mon River Trails Conservancy Executive Director Ella Belling said MRTC supports the bill.

“Although primarily focused on mountain biking, I anticipate there would be many opportunities to connect to rail-trails and create loops or longer journeys on trails,” she said. “The legislation is broad and could also be used for easements or agreements on rail corridors that are now in private ownership, possibly expanding and connecting the local rail-trail networks.

“This legislation,” she said, “would help create a trail network that would be a tourist destination and another piece of making our region a great place for businesses to want to locate and their employees to want to live here.”

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Reporter Ben Conley contributed to this story.