Heartland Trail lawsuit settled, Montcalm Township family pays for cutting trees

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 9:17 am on Monday, June 11, 2012

MONTCALM TOWNSHIP — More than a year after almost 100 trees were allegedly wrongfully cut down along the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail, all parties have reached a settlement in court.

Judge Robert Holmes Bell dismissed the case between the Friends of the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail and Ray and Joann Christensen and Joe Christensen of Montcalm Township after all parties agreed to settle in mid-April in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids.

As part of the settlement, the Christensens must acknowledge the trail’s 100-foot right-of-way and must pay $45,000 to the Friends of the Trail for the trees that were cut.

“We’re certainly glad it’s resolved and happy the decision reaffirmed the 100-foot right-of-way on the trail and some of the trees that were taken were on that right-of-way,” said Friends of the Trail board member and former chairman Franz Mogdis of Stanton.

Friends of the Trail Chairman Don Stearns of the Crystal-Riverdale area said the Friends of the Trail can plant 30 or 40 trees, but they won’t quite replace the 96 trees that were cut down, including about 50 mature trees.

“It’ll take 30 or 40 years to ever get the trees back up,” he said. “The shade that people could have gotten on that section is now gone. It’s 20 or 30 degrees warmer in the sun than in the shade. People riding through there get a good view of the cornfield now, where before they could have seen wildlife, birds and trees.

“It was a pain in the neck, but it’s worth it to see all the people who use it,” said Stearns of the court battle.

The Christensens declined to comment, citing a gag order by the judge.

Last year, the Friends of the Trail asked the judge to issue an opinion saying the Friends of the Trail owned a 100-foot-wide strip of land through farmland owned by family farmers Ray and JoAnne Christensen. The Friends of the Trail also wanted the judge to issue an opinion saying the Christensens had no right to trespass on the strip, which formerly was a CSX Transportation railroad. The strip runs between M-91 and Vining Road just south of Peck Road near the former Ore Ida factory complex.

The Friends of the Trail paved that portion of the trail as the last step in completing the 42-mile Fred Meijer Heartland Trail from Greenville to Alma.

The Friends of the Trail alleged in their lawsuit that the Christensens’ farm operation trespassed on the corridor, causing damage to the railroad bed, and that heir son, Joe, hired a group of men to cut down 96 trees along the trail corridor for firewood.

The Christensens claimed they took over ownership of the former railroad bed after it was abandoned and they had every right to cut down the trees because it was their property. They claimed two families that earlier owned their land granted the Pere Marquette Railroad Co. an easement, which ended when the railroad operation ceased. The Christensens also claimed the railroad bed is only 66 feet wide, not 100, based on valuation maps of the area.


A history of the rail corridor in Eureka and Montcalm townships:

Feb. 15, 1901 — Edward and Elizabeth Lincoln sell part of their land in southern Montcalm Township to the Pere Marquette Railroad for $1,050.

Feb. 26, 1901 — Orilla Gualt, widow of James Gault; her son, John Gault; and his wife, Luella Gault, sell part of their land in northern Eureka Township to the Pere Marquette Railroad for $664.

1947 — The Pere Marquette Railroad was sold to the C&O Railroad Co. As part of the Chessie System, the C&O merged with CSX Transportation.

1987 — CSX sold the line to Mid Michigan Railroad, which was a subsidiary of RailTex Inc., later RailAmerica Inc.

2006 — Crop Production Services just north of Greenville in Eureka Township received the last shipment on the rail line. The line generated only $494 in revenue that year. Electrolux and Ore-Ida had been significant users of the line before both plants closed.

2009 — The federal Surface Transportation Board issued a notice of interim trail use or abandonment for three miles of the rail line in the Greenville area. Contractors began removing railroad tracks and ties.

September 2010 — The Friends of the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail obtain the former corridor from Mid Michigan Railroad and announce plans to build a trail connecting the city of Greenville’s Fred Meijer Flat River Trail at Water Works Park with the Heartland Trail at Lake Road.

March 2011 — The friends group claims Ray and Joann Christensen and Joe Christensen of Montcalm Township, who own farmland around the corridor between M-91 and Vining Road, personally or hired someone to trespass and cut down 96 trees along the former railroad bed.

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