private property

Landowners have been blocking access to public trails through their private property in part because of liability issues.

Access along some segments of the Monon Trail is limited and sometimes dangerous, so Molly Hale decided to take action.

Hale lives along the Monon Trail on Indy's Northside and in the past was able to access the popular thoroughfare through a neighbor’s property.

After the neighbor moved, the new owners of the property blocked people in the neighborhood from using their yard to access the trail. Without the access, Hale and others in her neighborhood had to cross busy Westfield Boulevard.

As she and her husband explored options to get safer access to the trail, they heard landowners who were concerned about their liability if a person were to get hurt on their property.

She and her husband, in an effort to provide neighborhood access, had purchased a rental property along the trail. But they, too, were concerned about liability issues.

“People all along the Monon started putting up no trespassing signs because there was a greater sensitivity to liability,” Hale said.

That’s when Hale approached state Rep. Carey Hamilton, D-Indianapolis, about the concerns property owners had with allowing people to access the trail through their property.

“I realized that this was a pretty big deal that if you live on, in this case, a trail or greenway you can be liable for any issues should someone cut through your property with or without authority,” Hamilton said.

As Hamilton looked into the issue, she became aware of existing legislation that restricted liability when hunters and fishermen use private property to access hunting grounds or fishing areas.

Hamilton then drafted what became House Enrolled Act 1115 in the 2018 legislative session. It expanded the existing language to eliminate liability landowners would have with the public using their land as an access point for trails such as the Monon.

“It got broad support,” Hamilton said,adding that she found the Indiana Farm Bureau to be an ally. “I learned that their members were very supportive because of ‘Rails to Trails’ proposals across the state. So obviously, a lot of old rail lines go through farmland and they became strong proponents of the the bill to relieve the liability to the farmers.”

The Rails to Trails program turns old, unused railroad routes into trails that can be enjoyed by the public.

Brian Housh, Midwest policy manager for Rails to Trails, said the Indiana law is a great policy to move forward.

“We were particularly impressed that Indiana took the lead on what I think is some pretty innovative legislation,” Housh said. “With that liability issue it could create some resistance from landowners to allow for access to trails, so by limiting the liability, I think that really does promote and encourage private landowners to allow trail access.”

The law goes into effect on July 1, and with that, trails such as the Monon could be more accessible to the public.

Brynna Sentel is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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