Elm Creek access issue lingers



June 16, 2010 - 12:00 AM

Maybe 50 yards north of Elm Creek, on the east side of Washington Avenue, an igloo-shaped set of monkey bars and a small merry-go-round sit silently among weeds and small trees. At water’s edge, undergrowth limits access where a handful of turtles seize opportunities to sun themselves on a slab of concrete, once part of a lighted Victorian-style bridge that carried Washington over the creek.
On the south side of the creek and also east of Washington, a dam Lehigh Cement Co. built years ago to create a reservoir on Elm Creek is off-limits to fishermen who had trekked there for decades. West of Washington, also on the south side, is a broad expanse of freshly mowed grass naturally enclosed by brush along the creek and owned by the city.
Somewhere in all that, Gary McIntosh thinks there should be a place where people of all ages could have access to the creek to fish, skip rocks or just enjoy being outdoors in an idyllic setting.
“I think it’s moved to a higher priority for us to try and find a solution,” McIntosh, chairman of the Allen County Commission, said Tuesday morning. “I don’t know how many calls I’ve gotten on this. I even got some on Memorial Day.”
This is a decision by commissioners last month to discourage people from driving off State Street, south of Elm Creek, to the old low-water bridge that once carried the street. Each time it comes up, Commissioner Rob Francis reminds that County Counselor Alan Weber assured commissioners it was illegal to drive on a road’s right of way, which those going to the creek have done since a few days after the new, higher bridge opened in the 1950s.
This also is a decision by commissioners, with Director of Public Works Bill King’s blessings, to block a road running through county property to the old Lehigh dam.
“I’ll do whatever you want,” King said Tuesday, but allowed that he’d prefer not to have people traipsing through the county’s maintenance yard, near expensive equipment and fuel tanks.
Discussion of the creek’s dam and fishing surfaced Tuesday morning at the behest of David Hawn, an Iolan distressed by not now having access to a favorite fishing hole adjacent to the Lehigh dam.
King, through concern and not meanness, has urged an off-limits edict before, particularly when people went to the dam to shoot fireworks, which are banned in Iola. His annual worry is exploding pyrotechnics that shower sparks near fuel tanks.
“I’m a fisherman, I like to fish,” King told Hawn and commissioners, but he finds it worrisome to put $2 million dollars’ worth of county equipment at risk.

 HAWN, AS HE did a week ago, came to Tuesday’s commission meeting to speak with commissioners about his and others’ perception that commissioners’ action was to ban fishing on the creek.
That’s not accurate. What they did was limit access.
Iola Industries owns land adjacent to the dam on the south side and the low-water bridge near State is on private property.
Dick Works, longest serving of commissioners by 18 years, wasn’t too patient with Hawn, after he made accusations that weren’t flattering. He also observed, as he has previously, that the problem of fireworks and people leaving the area near the dam littered with trash wasn’t new.
“We deal with this every year,” Works said.
Francis also lashed out at Hawn after Hawn said his and other’s feelings were that Francis, King and Larry Crawford, mayor of Bassett, met in private to plot closure of the two areas. Crawford raised the issues several weeks ago.
“Prove if you can,” Francis said huffily. “You can’t because it isn’t true.”
“We need to use wisdom and be deliberate in what we do,” said McIntosh, in role of arbitrator.
He has suggested — and did again Tuesday — that county commissioners enlist the city of Iola and Thrive Allen County to find a way to provide access to the creek and a public place for outdoor gatherings.
The monkey bars and tiny merry-go-round are rusting evidence that plans of a creek-side park once were on the city’s agenda.
For reasons that no one today can fully explain the project fell by the wayside. Iola owns some of the land, through flood buyouts; some in privately owned.

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