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The Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail & its Impact on Adjoining Residential Properties

A survey of residents acknowledged that there are disadvantages expressed by some adjacent homeowners, but most reported being satisfied with the trail as a neighbor and experiencing relatively low rates of trail-related problems.

Download the complete study (pdf 2.3 mb), 61 pages with tables and photos

By Stephen J. Feeney, AICP

Map of New York

This report documents the results of a survey mailed to all owners of residential property located along the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail— a 35 mile long multi-use trail that travels along the shores of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers through the Counties of Schenectady and Albany, N.Y. In addition to recording pertinent characteristics of landowners and their properties adjoining the trail, the survey gave landowners an opportunity to express their opinions regarding the impact the trail has on their lives and property. This landowner survey is part of a larger regional effort underway to document the extent and type of use occurring on the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail, and user attitudes toward the trail.

"The typical fears associated with proposed trails such as increased crime, noise, loss of privacy, and decreased property values are not supported by this study."

While the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail is generally perceived as a benefit to the region, as most similar recreational trails are, attempts to construct and/or extend these trails are often met with fervent opposition from nearby landowners. The typical issues cited by landowners include increased crime, noise, loss of privacy, and decreased property values. Trail planners' contentions that these fears are overstated and not supported by experience with other trails tend to be questioned by decision makers in the face of vociferous opposition by landowners.

Furthermore, the local economic benefits and important quality of life issues related to increased recreational opportunities and transportation alternatives made available by such trails typically get overshadowed during such confrontations. Consequently, reliable and relevant information is essential so that proposals for new trails, or extensions of existing ones, can be evaluated fairly and landowners' concerns can be effectively addressed.

The Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail extends from the Erastus Corning Riverfront Preserve in downtown Albany west to Scrafford Lane in the Town of Rotterdam. The trail was constructed in the late 1970s and early 1980s and is built directly upon the old Erie Canal towpath and former railroad grades of the area's first transportation routes. All nonmotorized uses such as walking/running, bicycling, and in-line skating are permitted with the exception of horseback riding. Motorized use is confined to snowmobiling along a short, rural section at the western end of the trail. There is no permit system or fee for users.

The trail runs through a wide range of settings including rural, sparsely developed areas; heavily developed urban settings; and, suburban single family home developments. The trail passes through various municipal parks and there are many access points. It crosses a number of local, county, and state roads, and long sections are located along or near the rear property lines of numerous single family homes. The trail is generally flat with an 8 to 10 foot wide paved asphalt surface. A one-mile stonedust segment in the Town of Colonie from Schermerhorn Road to the Cohoes City line is the only unpaved section of the trail. While the trail stretches approximately 35 miles, predominantly along the shores of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers, it becomes a bike route in places within the Cities of Schenectady and Watervliet, and the Town/Village of Green Island, traversing local streets for short distances.

Trail Use Data from the ongoing user survey shows that the trail is truly a multi-use facility. While the profile of use varies depending upon the trail section, cyclists account for approximately 44 percent of user trips followed by walkers at 31 percent, runners at 18 percent, and in-line skaters at nearly 7 percent.

Since the opening of the trail in the late 1970s, use has increased significantly reflecting the national trend of an increasing number of Americans bicycling and walking. While no earlier user data are available, a conservative estimate based on the recent user survey puts current total trail use at approximately 90,000 user trips per year. A recent study by the Warren County Parks and Recreation Department indicates that use of their County Bikeway, located in the Lake George area of upstate N.Y., tripled between 1980 and 1995 to an estimated 104,000 user trips per year.

While the trail attracts users from relatively long distances, according to preliminary user survey results most trail users (69 percent) travel 5 miles or less to get to the trail. Approximately 22 percent of users travel between 5 and 10 miles, 5 percent travel between 10 and 20 miles, and 3 percent travel more than 20 miles to get to the trail. User survey response suggests that the "capture area" of the trail, defined by miles traveled to reach the trail, expands on weekends with approximately 16 percent of weekend users travelling more than 10 miles to get to the trail versus 4 percent on weekdays.

The vast majority (91 percent) of users reported that their primary purpose for using the trail is for recreation/exercise. The average duration of trail use is approximately 60 minutes on weekdays and 80 minutes on weekends. Averages vary significantly by mode, with cyclists tending to spend the longest amount of time on the trail and runners the shortest.

RESIDENTIAL LANDOWNER SURVEY METHODOLOGY

Survey Instrument
The residential landowner data contained in this report were collected through the use of a selfadministered questionnaire distributed and returned through the mail. The survey instrument was 8 pages long and included a cover letter from the Commissioner of the Schenectady County Planning Department along with a generalized map of the trail, and contained 21 multiple choice questions. No open-ended questions were included except to provide opportunities for additional comments if desired. An effort was made to avoid questions about which the respondents were not likely to be knowledgeable, and to keep respondent burden to a minimum.

Questionnaires developed by others were reviewed and many of the questions, although modified to fit our situation, were borrowed from previous surveys. Much of the process was replicated from a study of three rail-trails conducted in 1992 by the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service Conservation Program.

Survey Pre-Test
Prior to distribution, the questionnaire was pre-tested on a few landowners with homes along another existing trail. After completing the questionnaire, the participants were interviewed to discover ambiguity or bias in questions, problems with the layout, confusing questions, etc. Participants were also asked how much time it took to complete the questionnaire. As a result, several questions were removed and others were modified.

Survey Population
Since a relatively small number of homes are located along the trail, the decision was made to mail questionnaires to all of them instead of a sample. Surveys were mailed in March of 1997 to a total of 315 residential property owners immediately adjacent to the trail. Only owners of properties immediately adjacent to the trail were sent questionnaires since the intent of the study is to get opinions from the people most impacted by the trail. Potential properties were first identified through the use of tax maps and aerial photos. Then the area was driven and the trail walked/biked in certain locations to confirm the physical relationship of the trail to the house. Questionnaires were not sent to adjacent property owners where the trail becomes a bike route and traverses local streets.

DESCRIPTION OF LANDOWNERS AND THEIR PROPERTY

The vast majority of landowners (96 percent) reported that the subject property along the trail is their primary residence. Only three percent of the properties were reported as rented, one percent as second homes, and less than one percent as unoccupied. Less than 2 percent of landowners reported that the trail runs through their property while 38 percApril 15, 2007heir property. The remaining 60 percent reported that the trail itself is near their property but not touching it.

The landowners are nearly equally split with regard to whether their home was acquired after or before the trail was built. A total of 47.4 percent reported that they acquired their home after the trail was built and 52.6 percent before. Since the trail was built in the early 1970s, a majority of the respondents have lived in the home for over 20 years. Such long-term resitrail to provide insightful and credible comments.

LANDOWNERS' ATTITUDES TOWARD THE TRAIL

A total of 86.3 percent of property owners responded that their household uses the trail, while only 13.7 percent of property owners said their household never uses the trail. Of the households using the trail, 12.7 percent classified their use as daily to 4 times a week, 27.4 percent as frequently (once or twice a week), 27.8 percent as occasionally (once or twice a month), and 18.4 percent as rarely (once or twice a year).

Landowners were asked to recall their initial reaction to the idea of living near the trail and whether living near the trail is better or worse than they expected it to be. As shown in Table 3, five possible responses were presented from Much Better Than I Expected to Much Worse Than I Expected. Most people reported that living near the trail was the same as they expected it to be (56.3 percent), with 17.6 percent reporting it was better, and 10.1 percent reporting that it was much better. A total of 10.6 percent reported that it was worse than they expected it to be, and only 5.5 percent said it was much worse. Overall, respondents reported that living near the trail is somewhat better than they had expected it to be with an average response of 2.8, slightly better than the scales midpoint (3) which indicates they feel the same. Landowners in Schenectady County were somewhat more "positive" than those in Albany County with an average response of 2.7 in Schenectady vs. an average response of 3.0 in Albany County.

When asked how satisfied they are with having the trail as a neighbor, 87.8 percent felt indifferent or expressed satisfaction with the trail. Landowner response tends to be "positive" with an overall average response of 2.4, significantly better that the scales midpoint (3) which indicates indifference. A total of 41.3 percent reported that they were satisfied, 15.0 percent reported that they were very satisfied, and 31.5 percent reported they were indifferent. Only 10.8 percent reported that they were unsatisfied and just 1.4 percent reported that they were very unsatisfied. In general, there is no apparent trend in landowner attitudes toward the trail based on the distance of their home from the trail.

When asked how the trail has affected the quality of their neighborhood, landowner response tends to be somewhat positive with 24.5 percent of respondents reporting that the trail improved their neighborhood and 5.3 percent reporting that it much improved their neighborhood. Most (51.4 percent) landowners reported that the trail had no impact while 17.3 percent said it worsened the neighborhood and only 1.4 percent said it much worsened the neighborhood.

EFFECTS ON PROPERTY VALUES AND ABILITY TO SELL PROPERTY

Trail neighbors were asked how they thought the trail had affected the value of their property and whether they thought it made their property harder or easier to sell. The majority (53.8 percent) of landowners reported that the trail has no effect on the value of their property. Those who feel the trail has either increased or lowered the value are divided evenly at 7.1 percent, respectively. A significant number (32.1 percent) of respondents indicate that they have not formed an opinion on the trail's impact on the value of their property.

A total of 85.8 percent of landowners feel that the trail has no effect or increased their ability to sell their houses. Most landowners (64.9 percent) feel that the trail has no influence on the ability to sell their house while 18.5 percent feel that the trail would make it easier to sell and 2.4 percent much easier. Of the remaining respondents, 12.8 percent feel that the trail would make it harder to sell their home and 1.4 percent much harder to sell their property.

SAFETY & OTHER POSSIBLE PROBLEMS RELATED TO THE TRAIL AND ITS USERS

When asked whether the trail poses a risk to their personal or family's safety due to the activities of trail users, the overwhelming number (75.9 percent) of respondents said no. A total of 15.9 percent said yes and 8.2 percent had no opinion.

As with satisfaction levels, there is no readily apparent relationship between distance of home from the trail and landowner perceptions of safety. Intuitively one would assume that as homes' distances from the trail decreased, landowners would perceive trail users as more of a safety concern. While this holds true somewhat for respondents with homes within 100 feet of the trail, respondents with homes between 100 and 200 feet from the trail felt that trail users posed less of a risk to their safety than did respondents with homes between 201 feet and 500 feet from the trail. These responses could be due to a variety of reasons such as the homes physical relationship to the trail. However, it is another indication that landowners' perception of the trail does not vary a great deal based on the trail's distance from the home, and under most circumstances, the data herein seemingly can be looked at in aggregate.

Perceptions of Potential Problems as a Result of the Trail and Its Users:

Perceptions of Potential Problems as a Result of the Trail and Its Users
POTENTIAL PROBLEM NOT AT ALL A PROBLEM MAJOR PROBLEM
Litter on/near my property 41% 14%
Illegal motor vehicle use 44% 12%
Disruptive noise from the trail 45% 12%
Loitering on/near my property 45% 10%
Trespassing onto my property 51% 9%
Unleashed and roaming pets 60% 10%
Discourteous, rude users 58% 6%
Dog manure on/near my property 68% 8%
Vandalism of my property 68% 5%
Cars parking on/near my property 73% 6%
Burglary of my property 76% 3%
Users harass my pets 78% 4%
NUMBER OF RESPONSES 1,390 198

BENEFITS TO THE SURROUNDING COMMUNITY

Overall, landowners feel that the trail provides some important benefits to the surrounding community. They also feel overwhelmingly that development and management of trails such as the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail is a good use of public funds. When asked whether the development and management of this type of trail is a good use of public funds, 81.7 percent responded yes while only 5.3 percent responded no. The remaining 13.0 percent had no opinion.

Safe opportunities for both public recreation and health and fitness are felt to be the greatest benefits. Providing tourism and related economic benefits is considered the least important benefit. The trail is also not considered much of a transportation alternative by landowners. While the trail does connect some residential areas to business and commercial areas, its location and route is not that conducive to providing a significant amount of commuting opportunities.

Perceptions of Potential Benefits the Trail Provides to the Surrounding Community.
POTENTIAL BENEFITS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT NOT AT ALL IMPORTANT
Safe opportunities for public recreation 46% 3%
Safe opportunities for health and fitness 44% 2%
Open space conservation 37% 3%
Riverfront access/revitalization 34% 12%
Environmental education opportunities 32% 7%
Location for special events 19% 16%
Transportation alternatives 20% 22%
Tourism and related economic benefits 20% 21%

CONCLUSIONS

As noted earlier, caution is suggested in interpreting the results of this survey. As with all such surveys, conclusions are inherently subjective. Nonetheless, the results of the survey of homeowners shows several important tendencies in neighboring landowner attitudes toward the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail. While acknowledging that there are disadvantages expressed by some adjacent homeowners, most reported being satisfied with the trail as a neighbor and experiencing relatively low rates of trail-related problems. Only 12.2 percent of respondents reported being unsatisfied with the trail as a neighbor and 75.9 percent reported that trail users do not pose a risk to their household members safety.

The majority of landowners feel that the trail has no effect on or increased their ability to sell their homes. Similarly, most landowners feel the trail has no effect on or actually increased the value of their property. Overall, respondents also reported that living near the trail is somewhat better than they had expected it to be and improved the quality of their neighborhood modestly.

Overall, landowners reported that the trail provides some important benefits to the surrounding community. The benefits considered most important by landowners were safe opportunities for recreation, safe opportunities for health and fitness, and open space conservation. They also reported overwhelmingly that development and management of trails such as the MohawkHudson Bike-Hike Trail is a good use of public funds.

Preliminary results from the user survey suggest that the demographics of trail users is largely a reflection of the community through which the trail passes. Although lengthy regional trails such as the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail attract users from long distances, the majority of users (69 percent) travel less than 5 miles to get to the trail. Furthermore, a significant percentage of users appear to be dedicated repeat users, reporting use at once a week or more. Most landowners reported that members of their household use the trail often.

Obviously, the trail does not just provide benefits to a particular special interest group. The trail serves many needs and provides a diverse array of benefits ranging from open space conservation to providing a safe location for numerous special events involving cycling and walking. Persons from all age groups are represented on the trail with Seniors (65 and over) representing approximately 6 percent of users on weekends and 18 percent during the week.

These findings should be encouraging for communities planning similar trails and landowners living along proposed trail routes. Undoubtedly, the impacts a proposed trail will have on adjacent property depend on the particular circumstances. However, the typical fears associated with proposed trails such as increased crime, noise, loss of privacy, and decreased property values are not supported by this study. In many instances where landowners reported problems, they still reported being satisfied with the trail as a neighbor and enjoyed using the facility. Furthermore, many of the most often cited problems, such as litter, can be readily addressed by the communities and trail managers.

While the trail is being capitalized upon to varying degrees by each community through which it passes, there appears to be a great deal of untapped potential. As discussed by survey respondents, management and maintenance of the trail is clearly not uniform across municipal boundaries. Such discrepancies will hamper attempts to further capitalize on this regional asset. Upgrading the trail to a common standard, providing safe readily definable linkages of separate sections, and extending the trail to reach our neighboring Canalway Trail to the north and west would significantly improve the facility. In addition to making numerous recreational and cultural attractions more accessible to residents and visitors, the trail provides an opportunity to rediscover the Erie Canal and the waterfronts as a source of regional identity, provides a foundation for heritage-based tourism, and a resource for improving the quality of life in the region.

Download the complete study (pdf 2.3 mb), 61 pages with tables and photos

November 1997

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