Missouri landowners deal setback to Rock Island trail

The 144-mile Rock Island Trail would stretch from Windsor to Beaufort.
The 144-mile Rock Island Trail would stretch from Windsor to Beaufort.

The Rock Island railroad corridor runs through Rodney Luebbering's land near Meta in Osage County. He must cross portions of the corridor to reach various parts of his land and knows of other landowners who drive their cattle across the corridor.

The House had approved more than $70 million in federal funds, more than Gov. Mike Parson's recommendation of $69.3 million, to begin developing the former railway into a hiking and biking trail. But the Senate Appropriations Committee axed the money, and the full Senate and House followed suit.

Landowners' objections played a key role in the trail's defeat. They said the trail would encourage trespassing and violate their property rights.

Luebbering compared people going through private land to someone going into a resident of Columbia's backyard and using their pool: "It's not hurting anyone, but it's still my land."

The Rock Island corridor is a 144-mile stretch of railroad corridor that was obtained by the state of Missouri in 2021.

A 78-mile portion of the planned rail-to-trail state park, from Eugene to Beaufort, is projected to be the most expensive and difficult to renovate, with several tunnels and large bridges needing work. That stretch would have received renovations first under Parson's plan.

Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, spoke about his opposition to the trail's development. He said he preferred the money be used for deferred maintenance and that he saw this as a "property grab."

As the state budget was being crafted, one of the people working against the trail was Ryan Rowden, a lobbyist for Diamond Pet Foods in Meta. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, said he had seen Rowden lobbying on the issue.

Located at the center of Meta's downtown area, the pet food company is a family-owned and operated business that has expanded into multiple states, including Kansas, California, South Carolina and Arkansas.

Diamond Pet Foods' business has grown through the years, meaning expansion along the rail corridor that it was built next to when trains ran on it. But now, the proposed trail could disrupt the comings and goings of trucks to and from the factory and distribution center.

Rowden and Mike Kampeter, president of the dog food business, did not return messages seeking comment.

More visible opposition came from the Missouri Farm Bureau, a longtime opponent of the trail project. In December, the farm bureau's president, Garrett Hawkins, said in a statement: "We remain opposed to the use of taxpayer funds for trail conversion."

While Luebbering understands how the trail seems like a great idea from the outside, he said he and other landowners in the area have concerns.

"I've been told, 'You're just being selfish," Luebbering said. "Well, so are the people who are trying to take this."

While the corridor itself is owned by the state, the land surrounding it is privately owned. This presents access issues if the trail were to be developed.

"Imagine working on the Missouri River bridge in Jefferson City. But you gotta go four miles that way before you get to the bridge," Luebbering said. "You can't get off the easement, you can't leave this 100-foot strip with workers, with equipment, with nothing, unless the landowners agree."

Missouri's Department of Natural Resources has said it will work with landowners to ease their concerns. The department has held numerous meetings along the corridor to seek public input.

The state has entered into agreements with landowners along the Katy Trail who farm on both sides of the trail and need access to crossings.

Rep. Bruce Sassmann, R-Bland, who represents the district that includes Meta, said ongoing discussions about rerouting the Rock Island trail around the dog food business would be a win-win for trail proponents and landowners.

Sassmann said he doesn't share the same concerns as constituents such as Luebbering.

"This is a heart of Missouri economic development project," Sassmann said. He added it could "improve the quality of life in these communities and attract people to come live there."

While Sassmann has spoken with landowners such as Luebbering and Diamond Pet Foods, he said their concerns are the same as the concerns that were brought up when the Katy Trail was proposed. He said those "fears were really unfounded."

"The failure to invest money in the heart of Missouri perpetuates the picture of poverty in these communities," Sassmann said.

The price tag of the corridor's development has prompted criticism, but Sassmann said, "How much does poverty cost? Until we invest in these communities, we have to live with these high rates of poverty."

In contrast, Luebbering said Meta could be helped much more with money invested into the town rather than having the trail developed. Luebbering said the town doesn't have a sewer system, and this makes building new homes or restaurants in Meta difficult.

While giving a tour of the corridor that runs through his land, Luebbering pointed out damaged culverts with crumbling concrete and graffiti covered walls, already a sign of trespassers, he said.

Despite the funding being cut, Mike Sutherland, the deputy director of Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said the department still has $1 million in private donations for upkeep of the trail.

Though the construction funding has been cut for next year's budget, Sassmann said, "This was one of the governor's priorities, I don't think he'll abandon it."

Many communities along the trail corridor have embraced the project.

State Budget Director Dan Haug said future funding for Rock Island trail's development is unknown and will have to be examined again next legislative session.

Sassmann is hopeful.

On the House floor when the budget was passed without funding for Rock Island, he said, "I think we have needlessly delayed the development of a globally significant park in Missouri ... I will live to fight another day."

The work of the Missouri News Network is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association member newspapers.