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Closure of Coonskin Drive shouldn't affect proposed trail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Planners and officials for the West Virginia National Guard say closing Coonskin Drive shouldn't affect a proposed walking and biking trail that would go through Coonskin Park and Yeager Airport.

"The primary concern that the Base Realignment and Closure committee had was on the distance of some of our buildings from a public road," said Lt. Col. Dave Lester, public affairs officer for the West Virginia National Guard. "The proposed trail system would seem to go around the perimeter of the base, which is protected by a fence and other security measures."

In 2005, the BRAC committee recommended shutting down the 130th Airlift Wing and transferring its C-130 cargo aircraft to other bases. The unit is stationed at Yeager Airport in Charleston.

Former U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., fought a pitched battle to save the 130th Airlift Wing, helped by the state National Guard and state, county and city officials. In the end, they were able to stop the federal government from shutting the unit down.

But the BRAC committee had raised security issues about Coonskin Drive, which runs next to a National Guard headquarters building and armory. State officials are expecting another round of BRAC closures next year, and don't want to give the federal government any excuses to attempt closing down the 130th again.

To solve the security problem, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration and state Adj. Gen. James Hoyer want to close Coonskin Drive to the public. The move would require a new entrance to Coonskin Park, which is currently accessible only by Coonskin Drive.

State officials want to create the new entrance at the park's northern end and build a bridge across the Elk River near Mink Shoals to access the new entrance. Tomblin and Hoyer are trying to figure out how to pay for the estimated $9 million cost of construction.

Lester said a proposed hiking and biking trail that crosses Yeager Airport property should not create security problems for the 130th, and those behind a plan to put a walking and biking trail in the area don't think closing Coonskin Drive will affect the proposal.

In 2008, members of the Charleston Land Trust proposed building the trail to link the Coonskin area with downtown. The proposed trail would skirt the Elk River up Barlow Drive, go by the main runway at Yeager Airport, cross airport property and connect with the Northgate business park before looping back through Spring Hill Cemetery and heading back downtown. The hub of the trail system would be the Capitol Market.

"The basic plan would not be impacted by the road closure [of Coonskin Drive,]" said Charleston City Councilman and Charleston Land Trust founder Tom Lane.

"I don't view it as a security issue," he said. "The part of the airport that our trails would be on is on the opposite side from the Guard."

The land trust was set up to preserve green space in and around Charleston for public use.

Lewis Payne, a member of the land trust committee who worked hard on the trail plan, said work on the proposal has been stalled while officials for Yeager Airport extend the airport's runway and explore the legal ramifications of allowing public trails on airport property.

Work on the runway required chopping off the top of an adjacent mountain and reclaiming the mountaintop.

"We just started focusing on other projects," Payne said. "We're hoping the airport will pick that [project] back up when that mountaintop reclamation is finished."

Yeager Airport Director Rick Atkinson said a recent federal court ruling has suggested the airport can't make agreements for trails on airport property. "The FAA has issued guidance that says don't enter into things like this," he said.

But Atkinson said that fact alone shouldn't kill the trail plan. He said the trail could be rerouted on gas company right-of-way that skirts the airport.

Both Lane and Payne support the Coonskin Drive closure. "It's worth $9 million to provide security to the Guard," he said. "We need the Guard, too."

Payne said the new park entrance should actually make access to Coonskin Park easier.Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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