Celebrating Two Decades of the Monon Greenway

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November 2021

Imagine for a moment … what if the Monon Trail had not been redeveloped and was left as an unsightly “linear junkyard” as it was prior to becoming a major outdoor attraction for Marion and Hamilton Counties?

Today, the Monon Trail is an asphalt trail that stretches from the town of Westfield south to downtown Indianapolis. The Monon Greenway runs 5 miles from 146th Street to 96th Street.

As many trail users celebrate two decades of utilizing the trail for recreation and transportation purposes, we thought it prudent to look back at the people and organizations who assisted in making the Monon Trail and Monon Greenway (Carmel’s portion) a reality and worked through a myriad of obstacles so that current and future generations can enjoy it.

Carmel Monon Greenway

Pre-redevelopment of the Monon Trail

The CSX (formerly Monon) Railroad line connected Chicago and Indianapolis for more than 100 years. According to attorney Alan Townsend at Bose McKinney, who represented the City of Carmel during the land acquisitions for the Monon Trail project, CSX had either purchased outright parcels from landowners—mostly farmers at that time—or had written documents that were written as easements that gave the railroad company the right to use the land so as long as it was operating its railways. In later years, discerning who actually owned these parcels—246 in total—proved to be a convoluted task, to say the least.

After the decline of railroad travel and the sale of the company in 1987, the portion of the line between Indianapolis and Delphi was abandoned.

As municipalities in both counties began looking at purchasing properties along the Monon Railroad line, some property owners supported its redevelopment and some remonstrated in fierce opposition.

Carmel resident Paxton Waters and his wife, Rosemary, purchased their residence that adjoins the trail 31 years ago. Prior to its redevelopment, he recalled what the railroad line looked like.

“Thirty-one years ago, it was a serious junkyard,” Waters shared. “We bought our house at a discount because of the abandoned trail in the backyard. There were refrigerators and all kinds of big trash. People were shooting off guns back there, and in the wintertime it was a snowmobile course.”

Waters added, “I was totally for [the redevelopment] of the trail just to get rid of the trash. When I heard that the city was trying to buy up some of the properties along the trail, I was all for it. The trail was such a negative at the time and anything would be better than what it was.”

The Waters sold approximately 400 feet of their property to the city of Carmel for what he said was a “fair deal.” Fast forward to present time, Waters—who enjoys regular walks out on the trail—said he can’t even get out of his gate access to the trail from his backyard without people stopping to ask if he’d be interested in selling his house.

“What was a junkyard became a walking trail, and now it’s the biggest linear park you can do,” Waters stated. “We [Rosemary and I] just love it. And as an architect and master planner, I understand how these things go, and they’re never an overnight thing.”

A Difficult Road to Pave

City of Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard had a vision for the Monon Railroad line that had it morphing into a multi-county linear trail that would eventually become a main feed for intersecting trails throughout Central Indiana and the epicenter of an economic boom for Carmel and its fellow communities who share the railroad corridor.

Carmel Monon Greenway
City of Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard

“This railroad trail is unusual in the sense that it runs north and south, while many [other railroad lines] run east and west and were used to connect the east and west coasts,” Brainard said. “The land owned by the local farmers in the 1800s was later split up into lots and subdivisions in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and went from 13 or so deeded parcels to 246 parcels.”

The mayor shared that CSX had taken the position that the deeds were not reversionary interests but were owned, outright, by the railroad company. Obviously, the owners of the properties adjacent to the railroad corridor disagreed with that assessment. Subsequently, a class-action lawsuit was filed by the property owners against CSX. The case was filed in Hamilton County and was presided by Judge William Hughes. In a decade’s time, the suit was escalated up to the Court of Appeals and eventually was tried in the Indiana Supreme Court.

“The way the courts go about determining the title to these forgotten railroad corridors is messy,” Townsend stated. “Figuring out who the owner was became just an absolute jigsaw puzzle. The pending [class-action] lawsuit about who did or did not own [the properties] and who had the right to collect revenue from the fiber optic companies who had buried lines along the corridor is where we [the city] got our start.”

Townsend explained that because CSX had sent a team to meet with the property owners in Carmel more than a century ago, there were several different hand-written documents that the Indiana Supreme Court either ruled were actual warranty deeds or were right-of-way easements, and the 246 parcels in question were a maddening combination of both.

“Some of these were indeed reversionary instruments,” Townsend further explained. “What that means is when the railroad stopped running their trains and pulled up their tracks, the interest in that property reverted back to the person who gave them the easement in the first place. Keep in mind that there have been multiple property owners since that time and the properties were divided into several smaller pieces.”

Before it was all said and done, Townsend, along with Mayor Brainard and then city council member Ron Carter, had met with over 200 property owners, of which not all were as enthusiastic about the project. While most parcels were eventually purchased without issue from the property owners, some went through the process of eminent domain before the city could begin the process of paving and redeveloping the corridor.

“The purchase amounts for these parcels were determined by licensed and trained appraisers,” Townsend stated. “That’s how the courts typically expect these [amounts] to be figured out. Until the court decided who owned the parcels, we placed the money in an escrow account that we set up of the court’s escrow account before it was eventually released to the rightful owner. The mayor and Ron [Carter] took a lot of heat, and it takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to stick to your convictions that you know what you’re doing is right and is what is best for the community. In this instance, I don’t know of anyone today who does not look at this project and say, ‘What a great idea.’ In fact, we mostly hear, ‘What took you so long?’”

Garnering the Support of the Community

The success of the Monon Greenway project is due in large part to not only the city administrators and department heads who fought for the project but would not have been possible without the countless individuals and groups such as the Monon Greenway Committee, which recognized the substantial economic and recreational impact of redeveloping the corridor and raised awareness and funds to help push the needle forward on the project.

“In my mind, this [Monon Greenway] was not just something that we could do, it was something that we should do,” Carter expressed. “I was on the city council at that time and was a member and eventual president of the Carmel Redevelopment Commission. Those positions helped me to expand the vision of the trail and talk with developers about what the trail could mean to them. The trail is the equivalent to beach-front property in Central Indiana.”

Ron Carter: Former City Council Member

Carter continued, “What is an important fact is that Jim Brainard was the right person at the right time for this particular situation. And not just because of his vision [for the project] but because he was the only person I knew that was an advocate for trails and greenways that had a legal background. The moves he made from a legal standpoint were invaluable.”

Carter shared that a member of The Rotary Club of Carmel organized a trail cleanup from 116th to 96th streets, picking up two dump loads of heavy trash that had been tossed onto the railroad right of way for years.

Carter also shared that Phil Anderson, who was the Rotary president at the time, was extremely helpful in getting that effort moved along, and that Nick Kestner, who also was very active in Rotary, because of his background in bicycling also understood the economic impact that increased bicycling along the trial would have. Also mentioned, Rotary member and then Township Trustee Judy Hagen, was a key member of the Monon Greenway Committee as well and was crucial in garnering support for the trail to counter the efforts of the remonstrators.

“The Monon Greenway Committee was a major help,” Carter emphasized. “For example, we collected 3,000 signatures at CarmelFest on a petition for the trail to be made into a rail trail, and we presented it to the then city council—I was not on the council yet—who wouldn’t even look at it and, in fact, they were rude to us in the meeting. That was when I decided to run for city council. The people who got elected to city council in 1995 and took office in 1996 were open-minded supporters who worked with the Monon Greenway Committee. It was a 180-degree turnaround in terms of support.”

An Incomparable Community Amenity and Economic Driver

The Monon Greenway is a 42-acre linear park. A grand opening in the fall of 2001 marked the project’s completion. The trail runs through suburban neighborhoods and the retail/commercial districts of the city of Carmel. It connects at 96th Street with the Monon Trail in Indianapolis. The Monon Greenway connects to the Monon Trail in Indianapolis. That connection allows its users to be able to ride all the way to downtown Indianapolis by bike path. It also connects to a multiuse path along 146th Street that takes people through the outskirts of two other communities, Noblesville and Westfield.

Since its opening, the public has overwhelmingly supported the trail. Organizations such as The Rotary Club of Carmel and the Carmel Clay Public Library have been staunch supporters of the redevelopment of the trail since its inception, and the Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation Department manages the Greenway.

Over the years, the properties along the Monon Greenway in Carmel have become some of the most sought-after properties in both residential and commercial real estate markets. City Center, the Center for the Performing Arts and Midtown Plaza most certainly would have different vibes if not for the existence of the Monon Greenway. And the Carmel Clay Schools have benefited as their cross-country teams use the trail for training as an alternative to busy streets and narrow sidewalks.

The trail also serves as a commuter route for avid bicyclists and pedestrians who choose alternate means of transportation.

During the summer seasons, the Carmel Farmers Market has reported that over 10% of the visitors to the market arrived there via the trail. And the trail provides easy access to the festivals and other community events that are located in the Arts & Design District, Midtown and City Center.

As many residents know, the old Monon railroad station, “The Depot,” just south of Main Street and adjacent to the trail, is still standing and is under the care and management of the Carmel Clay Historical Society.

Carmel Monon Greenway

There are simply not enough column inches available in this article to thank the entire list of individuals, community organizations, city department heads and other contributors to the success of the Monon Greenway in Carmel. Nonetheless, we wish to sincerely thank every individual who contributed their talents, time, money and other resources to the redevelopment of one of the city’s, county’s and area’s most important amenities. Without their determination, vision, patience and contributions—the Monon Greenway would not be the extraordinary linear park that it has become, that will be enjoyed by residents and visitors for generations to come.