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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

BNSF to remove tracks through Mildale Farm

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Freight trains rumbling through a regional park don't do much for its natural beauty, serenity and ambience, according to The Olathe, Kan., News That problem faced Johnson County Park and Recreation District officials for years as they contemplated the future development of the 2,000 acre Big Bull Creek Park east of Edgerton.

A BNSF track cuts through the northern section of the park about a quarter of a mile south of the district's 600-acre Mildale Farm, a facility that park officials rent for weddings, family reunions, parties and corporate meetings. It was a problem that park officials thought they would have to live with until now. The park district and the railroad company reached an agreement that will eliminate the track through the park. The company will spend between $800,000 and $1.2 million to remove the track and the contaminated soil underneath. BNSF will then donate the 14 acres to the county.

That eliminated one problem but others existed.

The railway firm wants to build a major rail hub near Big Bull Creek Park on 413 acres southwest of Gardner. The railroad's proposal quickly raised a lot of questions about its impact on the park's future development and how it would affect the Mildale Farm facility. The agreement reached last week attempted to answer some of those concerns.

As part of the rail yard the company wants to build three railroad tracks just north of the Mildale Farm in addition to the track that's already there.

The agreement requires BNSF to build a 900-foot earthen berm that is five feet high and topped with a five-foot sound wall on the north side of the two-story, equestrian-style Mildale barn, where private receptions and other events are held. The company also will build a new parking lot for the 8,672-square-foot barn.

The farm, which is part of the larger Big Bull Creek Park, is just north of 199th Street and east of U.S. 56 highway. There is only one public entrance on 199th. As part of the agreement, the company will relocate a current service entrance, which is also a public event exit.

"We negotiated as good a deal as circumstances allowed," said Michael Meadors, the park district's executive director. "No railroad tracks are being built on park property."

Not all the county's concerns are addressed in the agreement. A preliminary environmental report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in July concluded that the BNSF project would have minor effects on the park. However, Johnson County disagreed with that finding, contending that the corps understated the impact that new railroad tracks and increased rail activity would have on the park. The county also had a number of concerns about how the sprawling rail yard might affect Mildale Park in a letter it sent to the Corps of Engineers at the end of July.

Among other things, the county was worried about how trains might block access to the park's primary entrance at 199th Street and U.S. 56.

"These crossing delays will also restrict mobility in the area and possibly jeopardize emergency service," the county wrote in its July 31 letter. "The impact on Mildale Park will not be minor."

The county also expressed concerns about how storm water runoff from the project would affect the park, an issue not addressed in last week's agreement. County officials are also nervous about how plans to relocate a stream north of Mildale Park will affect other streams within the park's site.

"The stream conditions that currently exist are almost pristine in nature and a development of this magnitude will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the streams in the region."

Steve Baru, a new park board member, said the park district's environmental concerns don't stop at the border of the park. He noted that county voters approved buying the park land years before the intermodal was conceived.

"I do think it's safe to say that if we had known what was going to happen 10 years later, that park would have been in a different place."

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