AURORA — The city took another step Sept. 10 in its effort to acquire 5.5 miles of right-of-way along Norfolk Southern’s rail line, which it wants to use for a hiking and biking trail and public park.

Council members passed an ordinance declaring the need to appropriate about 60 acres of rail right-of-way and authorize Law Director Dean DePiero to file suit to gain title to the land.

The stretch the city is interested in runs from just north of Treat Road to Chamberlain Road in Mantua Township.

"The city plans to use every legal means possible to acquire this land," said DePiero. "The issue could end up in a contentious legal battle.

"The city has made it clear it wants to pursue the acquisition of this right-of-way, and this legislation merely follows the statutorily set forth procedures for doing so," DePiero said.

However, FirstEnergy Corp. wants to do likewise so it can erect 69-kilovolt transportation lines along the route to improve the power grid for some 13,000 area customers.

"We believe the city has an equal or superior right to FirstEnergy’s to acquire the right-of-way," said DePiero. "This is a very important issue and there’s a lot of stuff happening legally behind the scenes."

Norfolk Southern filed an application last fall with the Surface Transportation Board to abandon the line since it has been used for many years, and NS sees no need to use it in the future.

Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin said city officials "are monitoring the situation daily" and hope the STB will act on the abandonment request soon.

She said the city has hired outside counsel with experience in utility and eminent domain issues to assist DePiero. She added the city has had the 5.5-mile stretch appraised at a value of $640,000.

DePiero said once the STB approves the abandonment of the line, the city’s lawyers can file suit either in Portage County Common Pleas Court or in federal court. "We will make a determination at that time in which court to file the suit," he added.

The Portage Park District also has supported efforts to use the right-of-way through Aurora for a trail. It could eventually hook up with the Headwaters Trail which runs between Mantua and Garrettsville.

FirstEnergy spokesman Doug Colafella has said the railroad bed would have the least impact on the community, and the firm is willing to work with the city to bring about power grid improvements and a hiking and biking trail along the right-of-way.

Womer Benjamin said the city has proposed an alternative route for the electric transmission lines, noting "we don’t want 70-foot poles running through the middle of town."

Colafella said FirstEnergy plans to schedule public meetings this fall to inform local residents about its plans, and those meetings will be prominently publicized.

Meanwhile, Womer Benjamin has sent a letter to Aurorans asking for support of the city’s efforts to acquire the right-of-way, and urges them to attend any public meetings held by FirstEnergy.

Reporter Ken Lahmers can be reached at 330-541-9400 Ext. 4189 or klahmers@recordpub.com