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Frank Gray

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The Journal Gazette

Rural, tree-lined lane subject to expansion – maybe

On the north side of the county, not quite a mile from the DeKalb County line and about a half-mile east of Coldwater Road, is a little lane, about 1,300 feet long, known as Richey Lane.

In the past 110 years or so, the road has gone out of existence and then popped back into existence under different names. It was vacated once, meaning it ceased to be a road, and about a century ago a farmer deeded a 30-foot-wide stretch of land to the county to re-establish the road.

The lane, canopied by trees, is so narrow that two cars going in opposite directions sometimes can’t pass, but that has never bothered the residents. There are only five homes on the lane, all on the east side or on the northern tip, so traffic was never a problem.

About four years ago, though, a vacant stretch of land on the east side of the road was divided into lots and put on the market as part of a project to be called Canyon Cliffs. Around 2009, the developer deeded an extra 25 feet of right of way on the west side of the lane, where no one lived, to the county. The idea was to quickly provide the county with enough land to widen the road when the time came.

The project, though, was part of a larger development also called Canyon Cliffs, which has been under fire for years by environmentalists and others. Opponents have sued over approval of other parts of the development and challenged a county ordinance under which it was approved.

The Richey Lane portion, though, seemed to escape much of that attention.

It wasn’t until about a year ago that the developer asked for and got the highway department’s permission to start clearing trees from the right of way on the west side of Richey Lane in preparation for widening the road, but work didn’t start until this summer.

That’s when residents stepped in to protest. When contractors appeared to start removing trees, residents confronted them. One contractor reportedly walked away from the job, and on another occasion a sheriff’s deputy was summoned to the site and ordered another contractor to leave because they were cutting trees on county property.

The fight all boiled down to a few, often overcomplicated points of argument.

Dennis Baker is one of the neighbors who have come before the county commissioners at least three times to protest the project.

He argued that the decision to widen the road hadn’t gone through the normal procedures; that there is no need to widen the road because no lots have been sold or houses built as part of Canyon Cliffs; that widening the road amounts to the county helping the developer market its lots; and the trees that would have to be cut down had value as lumber, and no individual or private company should be able to profit from lumber cut from county property.

At a commissioners meeting Friday, Baker and others continued their protests.

Tom Niezer, though, an attorney for the developer, said the whole process has followed the same procedures used for the last 50 years in Allen County. Land for right of way was deeded to the county, the developers would clear the right of way at their expense, clearing the way for the county highway department to widen the road.

If nothing else, the road needs to be widened. It meets no standards at all, Niezer said.

“From Day 1 it has had to be improved,” Niezer said.

The argument that no lots have been sold, therefore the road doesn’t need to be widened, made no sense, Niezer argued. The developer built roads on an adjacent tract before any lots were sold or homes were built. That’s the way it’s done. You need roads.

“We’re asking people to buy estate-sized lots when we can’t guarantee a good road on the right of way we’ve provided,” Niezer said. “If I’m going to buy land and build a house, I want to make sure that public safety equipment can get to my home.”

Let the developer get to work clearing the county’s land for it, he said.

After more than an hour, it finally came down to what to do with the trees that will be removed. Niezer said he has no idea what the contractor will do with the trees that are removed, and Commissioner Linda Bloom piped up that the county hires contractors all the time to clear land, and no one has any idea what happens to the trees.

In the end, residents were told that they could have what lumber and firewood they wanted from the right of way if they could find a contractor to remove it, but the work had to be done by Tuesday. Clearing of the right of way would start next week, and the road will be widened.

It’s possible to see both sides of the argument here.

The people on Richey Lane have lived on their canopied way for decades, enjoying what they consider a little corner of paradise, and they’d like it to remain that way.

But if the land across the road is deemed useless because of the lack of a good road, paradise, it seems, stops at the west edge of the street.

Before long, perhaps in a few weeks, Richey Lane will be widened. So is paradise being destroyed or expanded?

I guess it depends which side of the road you live on.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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