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Committee advocating for trail connection along river

by HEIDI DESCH
Whitefish Pilot | October 27, 2021 1:00 AM

The city’s bicycle and pedestrian path advisory committee is advocating that the missing piece of the path along the Whitefish River be completed.

City plans have long called for constructing an extension of the trail between Kay Beller Park north toward a section of the trail that runs between the river and the BNSF railyard. But issues have arisen in the planned construction of the section.

Currently, the path stops just under the Second Street bridge where steps lead up to Miles Avenue. Trail users have to follow Miles Avenue north before being able to connect back with the trail.

Adding the connection was identified as one of the top priorities in the city’s 2017 Connect Whitefish Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan.

The city’s bicycle and pedestrian path advisory committee, along with citizens concerned about the project, is set to go before the City Council on Monday advocating that the missing piece of the trail be constructed. They are also asking members of the public to show up in support of the trail.

John Phelps, chair of the committee, says the piece of trail known as the Riverbend Section has been a challenge to develop.

Constructing the trail requires spanning two property parcels, the Riverbend condominium parcel with 370 feet of river frontage and the lot to the north with 193 feet. The property to the north has agreed to the trail, but the Riverbend condo HOA is opposing the construction of the path between the condominium building and the river even though the city owns an easement across the property.

“Despite granting the city a bike/ped easement, the developer built the condominiums close to the Whitefish River, apparently without considering the pathway,” he said in a letter to Council. “The HOA representing the current condo owners, who would have had full knowledge of the easement at the time of purchase, are now opposed to the pathway along the river. In response to their concerns, the committee has evaluated other routes, but has determined that none is reasonably accessible or comparably safe for users.”

Parks and Recreation Director Maria Butts said Council is not scheduled to make a decision on the trail at its meeting on Monday. Because of the complexity of the issue, Butts said, city staff plans to recommend that Council hold a work session at a later date on the matter.

The HOA proposed a switchback route that would connect the section of the trail under the bridge via switchbacks up the bank with the trail running through the paved parking area for the condos adjacent to Miles Avenue.

The committee says the trail constructed this way would not only inconvenience users, but would be nearly impossible for cyclists and users with mobility issues to safely navigate.

Since the trail would be constructed close to the river, the committee is also recommending the trail use a boardwalk in areas where it’s necessary to satisfy requirements by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which has to approve a permit for the trail.

The committee says it hopes the Riverbend HOA will understand the importance of the trail, but if not then the city should pursue enforcement of the easement that has been in place since 1983.

The bike/ped committee says if the city doesn’t show a commitment to the trail, developers in the future would be less inclined to support the integration of a trail easement on their property.

“Failure of the city to demonstrate a strong commitment to a comprehensive bike/ped network will demotivate developers and possibly make future negotiations more challenging,” the committee wrote in its report to Council. “If the trail is not continuous, it diminishes the value of the trail in any particular location.”

A group of concerned citizens known as Safe Trails Whitefish is also asking for the public’s support in advocating for the construction of the trail section as recommended by the committee.

The trail group says that the current situation is dangerous and the committee’s recommendation is the best alternative. The group points out that trail users attempting to cross Highway 93 are faced with a steady stream of traffic, and Miles Avenue is a steep road that’s hard for bicycles, wheelchairs and those pushing strollers to use safely.

“Stand up for the public’s long-standing right to enjoy a trail along the Whitefish River,” the group says noting the decades of work that have been spent on developing the trail.

City Council meets on Monday, Nov. 1 at 7:10 p.m. at City Hall.