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Chester County Press

Uniting scenic Chester County

11/13/2015 12:25PM ● By Richard Gaw

Photo by Alessandra Nicole Mike Bontrager and his daughter, Stephanie Almanza, came up with the idea of a linked trail system around Kennett Square.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

In 2009, Mike Bontrager and his daughter, Stephanie Almanza, were training for a marathon and ran 15 miles in Chicago, using a well-marked series of trails.

“When we came back to southern Chester County the next weekend to do a 19-mile run, we almost got killed several times on the road,” Bontrager said, laughing. “It made me wonder. We have such beautiful places here, so why is there no place for people to get off the road and see these beautiful places? This is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the country, and yet it's really hard to get out and enjoy it.”

It was that simple idea that has led to the rapidly growing Kennett Greenway, a series of trails linking established nature preserves and parks in the region. The ultimate goal is a 10-mile connected loop around Kennett Square and through Kennett Township that will eventually allow local residents easy access to a safe place to walk or run -- anywhere from Anson B. Nixon Park in the north to the Auburn Valley State Park at the Delaware state line.

Like any great idea, the Kennett Greenway started with some basic questions: “Who's involved in trails in our area?” Bontrager said. “Is it even possible to connect all these greenways? And can we get started on any real trails?”

To start the legwork, Stephanie Almanza -- who was then a college student -- took the project on as an internship in the summer of 2010.

“At the time, I was in school in Washington, D.C., and there were so many safe places to run in the city -- the National Mall, along the Potomac, Rock Creek Park,” Almanza said. “But when we'd run together back in Kennett, it was always, 'Move over to the side of the road, because if a car comes along, we're in trouble.'

“I started talking to people,” Almanza said. “I'd go on the computer and gathered names, found out who was working on trails in Chester County. I talked to some urban planners, and everyone was working on their own ideas, but there was nothing to tie them together. Along the Brandywine you had the Struble Trail, Philadelphia had a lot of trails. Pocopson has a great trails network. But Kennett wasn't doing anything. So we linked up with the Land Conservancy (TLC), and they have a couple of preserves that actually have some trails in them.”

Bontrager added, “At that point, TLC wanted trails, but they didn't have the resources. Their main thrust was open space and when we came in with the trails idea, they were like, 'Oh, thank goodness.' Right away, it was a great alliance.”

Almanza said, “We presented to townships, we'd hold open meetings for people to come and give us their feedback. There was a community here that wanted this.”

After the early research and discussions, the Kennett Trails Alliance was formed as a way to unite all the conservation and recreation groups. Today, the Kennett Greenway initiative involves the Kennett Trails and Sidewalks Committee, Kennett Township, Kennett Borough, the Land Conservation Advisory Committee and the Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County. The array of groups and advocates can be confusing, Bontrager admitted. Adding to the public-relations job is the fact that plenty of people don't realize that some of these natural assets, such as the Stateline Woods Preserve or the Bucktoe Creek Preserve, even exist.

“What we currently need is to build buzz and public support, more than money,” Bontrager said. “We're always interested in funding,but there is grant money available for well-thought-through plans to connect communities to nature.”

In the past year, Kennett Township officials have been very encouraging, he said, as have local conservation groups who see trails as an ideal way to connect residents with beautiful places that have been preserved for their use, but have remained isolated until now. “The current supervisors have clearly made this a priority,” Bontrager said. “They realize that if you have to cut through red tape or if you keep kicking it back to committee, it will just never happen. They are a big reason why this is moving so well.”

The result is the Parish Trail, a well-marked and scenic woodland trail. Walking with his daughter on the Parish Trail near the Pennock Ball Park in Kennett Square, Bontrager smiled and greeted two people who passed him on the wooded pathway on a weekday afternoon. The trail, which was dedicated in 2012, was the culmination of a lot of work by contractors, Boy Scouts, church groups and local residents who cleared a pathway through woods and laid down a trail that, at one point, meanders along a small stream.

“This is a great example of the borough, which owns the land, being really supportive,” Bontrager said. “The easement here is held by the Land Conservancy, the land is owned by the borough, it's in the township, and the Kennett Trails Alliance was the backbone to pull it all together. The trail currently extends down to Hillendale Road and then connects to Chandler Mill Road. We hope to eventually link this with the Chandler Mill Bridge,” Bontrager said, referring to the bridge that was recently acquired by the Land Conservancy. “It's about connecting community assets.”

The Kennett Trails Alliance is mostly run by Tom Janton now, with Stephanie McClure doing the marketing legwork. Bontrager is proud to have kicked off the idea, but he sees the project as too big to handle by himself at this point. Janton commented that, “The success of any long-term project like this depends on the collaboration of these key groups involved. No one group can do it alone. Collectively, we now have the necessary resources to make this vision a reality and connect our community to its natural beauty."

“Everybody loves trails, as long as they do not get too close to their property,” Bontrager said, conceding that some homeowners associations have been cautious about connecting sidewalks or trails to the Kennett Greenway. “A lot of the developments do have open space allocated to them,” he said, “and most HOAs want access. Most of them say, 'If I can jump from my house to the trail, that's a huge benefit.' Our discussions with them have been, 'How can we help you get this done?'"

“The research does show that if anything, trails bring more awareness and community safety than they do danger,” Almanza said. “There is plenty of evidence that where there are public trails that are well maintained, that they do create more safety.”

“The lands that we are going through are eased with the land owner's permission,” Bontrager said. “There is no eminent domain. We're not taking anybody's property.”

“We've had a lot of interest from people who've said, 'How can I get involved?'” Almanza said. “We're trying to find a way to best mobilize that.”

When asked about a time frame for completion, Bontrager laughed and said that the Kennett Trails Alliance initially estimated a decade to get the trail loop up and working, but that time frame is only to indicate that it will take patience and perseverance. “The goal is to have as many residences as possible have access to this,” he said. “We think we're going to be able to deliver real, usable trails in the near term. But nothing happens quickly that lasts. We're willing to stick this out and are in this for the long haul. We have a unique opportunity in time for Kennett to gain this tremendous asset or it will never happen.”

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To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].