Court battle still rages over eastern Iowa city’s decision to block access to recreational trail

Last summer, the city of Riverdale constructed this fence and gate between the 3,000-mile Mississippi River Trail and the 15-mile Duck Creek Trail that runs through the Iowa Quad-Cities. (Photo: Iowa District Court case exhibit.)

A coalition of eastern Iowa bicyclists and runners are planning to appeal a court ruling favoring one city’s decision to block a connection to the historic Mississippi River Trail.

The planned appeal would challenge a recent district court ruling that represents an unusual legal setback for bicyclists and others who are attempting to connect or expand recreational trails throughout the state.

The court battle stems from the city of Riverdale’s decision last summer to construct a fence and gate between the 3,000-mile Mississippi River Trail, which extends from the headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota to Venice, Louisiana, and the 15-mile Duck Creek Trail that runs through the Iowa Quad-Cities.

The city’s action triggered immediate protests from trail users and prompted the neighboring city of Bettendorf to cancel agreements to assist Riverdale with its snow plowing and building inspections.

The dispute has its origins in a 2010 decision by Riverdale to install a sidewalk extension from the paved portion of South Kensington Street to the Mississippi River Trail, providing a direct link between that trail and the local Duck Creek Trail that also winds through Davenport and Bettendorf.

Last summer, in response to complaints from city residents about bicyclists on the heavily used trails passing through their neighborhood, the Riverdale City Council adopted a resolution authorizing the installation of a chain link fence and gate across South Kensington Street for the purpose of blocking bicycle and pedestrian traffic to the short spur that connects the two trails.

The Cornbelt Running Club and the Quad-Cities Bicycle Club, which have a combined membership of more than 2,000 people, joined together in an effort to fight the move, filing a lawsuit that alleged the fence and gate represent a nuisance and is in violation of the state law that requires cities to keep all public streets “free from nuisance.”

The lawsuit also claimed the fence and gate were erected for a “private purpose solely benefitting the homeowners” in one subdivision and that they served no public purpose. The plaintiffs alleged the city’s actions have forced users of the two trails to take a detour that crosses U.S. 67, a four-lane highway, at a spot where drivers allegedly ignore traffic signals and have almost struck bicyclists and pedestrians in the past.

Bicyclists took to social media to condemn the city’s action and staged a “Tour de Fence” event to raise money for the court fight and increase public awareness. But Scott County District Court Judge Henry Latham recently ruled against the two clubs and granted the City of Riverdale its motion for summary judgment in the case. Latham found the only issue to be decided was whether the paved walkway connecting the two trails could legally be considered a road or street subject to the state prohibition on nuisances.

“The walkway which the fence obstructs is not a part of the street,” Latham ruled. “The walkway is paved with a material other than asphalt, and it is roughly one-fifth of the width of the asphalt paving. There is no conceivable way a standard motor vehicle, other than a motorcycle, would even be able to use this path, whereas the primary purpose of the asphalt-paved portion of South Kensington Street is for motor vehicle use.”

Mark Wyatt of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition said the effect of the ruling is that users of the two trails will now be forced to cross U.S. 67. “There’s no other way to do it,” he said. “Both trails remain open, but we now have no other connection between the two.”

In response to the judge’s ruling, Riverdale Mayor Mike Bawden said on the city’s website he has received messages from “some of the more outspoken bike advocates” threatening boycotts of Riverdale businesses. “While I think most of the rhetoric is just venting frustration, I think we need to realize that this situation has arisen out of concerns some trail users have about their safety when they’re using the Mississippi River Trail in Riverdale — and that’s an issue we need to continue working on as a city,” he said.

Bawden noted the plaintiffs in the case have “made it pretty clear in their social media postings that they want to look at other legal possibilities, so I urge our residents not to think this is over and, above all, don’t gloat.” He said despite the city’s “efforts and offers to work with trail users to develop solutions, they made the decision that taking a more adversarial approach was preferred. I think it’s pretty clear we weren’t anywhere near agreement on how to move forward, so letting this work its way through the courts was probably the best solution.”

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Quad-Cities Bicycle Club past president John Harrington, said Friday plans are in the works to appeal Judge Latham’s ruling. “We’ve lost the first inning and now we’re working on an appeal,” he said. “Our attorney has been very generous with us, and he’s just itching to go to the Iowa Supreme Court on this. He earnestly wants to do this, and I do, too.”

Wyatt said the dispute with Riverdale is unusual for Iowa.

“What we see more of in Iowa is cities embracing trails and looking for more ways, and better ways, to make these kinds of connections,” he said.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.