Conoy Township Supervisor Stephen Mohr’s worst nightmare was that the hiking experience on the final few miles of the popular Northwest Lancaster County River Trail would be marred by riverfront shacks.
But the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority and Lancaster County Conservancy are teaming up to keep wooded land and wetlands on both sides of the trail natural and open to the public.
The authority’s board voted Friday to spend $1.51 million to buy 119 acres from Talen Generation. The deal includes 53 acres of trail buffer land that will be resold for stewardship to the Lancaster County Conservancy once it secures state grant money and private donations. It borders almost 1 mile of the trail.
The purchase also includes 66 acres of agricultural land along Route 441 that the utility did not want to subdivide. The authority intends to sell that land for continued ag use.
Talen wants to get rid of unneeded land and it intended to sell the property, which had come under utility ownership in the 1950s, prior to the 1961 opening of Brunner Island power plant.
When Talen said it wasn’t willing to wait until the conservancy had lined up funds, the nonprofit and Conoy Township officials feared that it would be sold off piecemeal. They approached the waste authority, which has been instrumental in building the trail.
“Boy, we’re tickled pink over this. We’ve been holding our breath and keeping our fingers crossed,” said Mohr. “That land should always be open for public access.”
With state grant money, the township hopes to see the final three miles of the northernmost section of the trail paved and completed in 2018.
Currently, there are 11 miles of the paved multi-use trail in use along the Susquehanna from Columbia to Bainbridge.
The final stretch of trail — from Bainbridge to Collins Road, just south of the Dauphin County line — is singular, with several well-preserved stone locks and a canal boat repair dock on the historic Pennsylvania Canal.
The section also features mature woods and a handful of wetlands. Much of the trail traces the old path used by mules to pull canal boats.
“It really was a collaborative effort,” said Kathie Shirk-Gonick, the Lancaster County Conservancy’s director of land protection.
“I think it’s visionary and in the long-term best interests of Lancaster County,” said waste authority board member and former state senator Michael Brubaker.
Talen, which had the land appraised at $1.71 million, agreed to sell it below value.
The land, mostly wooded, stretches from the Susquehanna shoreline to the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, straddling both sides of the trail. It follows almost 1 mile of the trail.
Conoy Township is building the trail mostly on its right of way, which is 80-135 feet wide along the old Pennsylvania Canal.
There is no threat of development of land bordering the trail north of the purchase because it’s in a floodplain and mostly owned by the township, conservancy, waste authority, a campground and an organic farm, Mohr said.
Respecting the wishes of one of the private donors toward the project, the conservancy intends to build a side trail around one of the wetlands near the trail. It would have bird houses, feeding stations and interpretive signs.
In January, the conservancy, with funding from Lancaster resident Sally Jeffords and her Pine Tree Conservation Society, paid $203,000 at a public auction to buy 24 acres — also on the final section of the trail — from the Augustine estate.
One of the tracts was farmland that will be allowed to revert to woodland.