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The Anderson Valley Trail Initiative

Ask anyone how it feels to take a bike ride and you are sure to get a positive response. Riding a bicycle just might be one of the top five pleasures of life that young and old alike can share. And so, it is not surprising that a proposal to establish a bike trail in Anderson Valley got a warm reception at the meetings held last week to explore the idea of constructing such a trail.

The efforts to identify and promote a bike trail through Anderson Valley took form a few years ago by bicycle enthusiasts who formed a group known as Cycked. From its inception, Cycked has shown a remarkable degree of persistence in nurturing the idea, with the encouragement of the local Community Serv­ices District (CSD). Ultimately, the Mendocino Council of Governments (MCOG) applied for and received a grant of $135,000 to prepare a feasibility study. The grant was provided by Caltrans as a Community Based Transportation Planning (CBTP) grant.

As the reader may already be aware, one can’t avoid the inevitable flurry of acronyms and windy titles where government agencies at any level are involved. It is the nature of the beast. So, please do bear with them. The planning of this project is worth knowing about. And, how it takes shape should matter to every resident from Cloverdale to the coast along the Highway 128 corridor.

The focus of the proposed project is to determine the feasibility of constructing a “multi-use non-motorized path” from Cloverdale to the Mendocino Coast along Highway 128, a distance of about 51 miles. The feasibil­ity phase is primarily purposed to identify “implemen­table options leading to the eventual funding, planning designing, and construction of a shared use valley trail, in prioritized segments.” In layperson terms, is a bike and pedestrian trail possible? Can it overcome the con­straints and challenges of the topography? Will the entire 51 miles be built or only portions (segments) of it? And by implication, though it was not the overt focus of the public meetings, can enough local support be marshaled to convince funding sources that the cost of building such a trail is worth the investment?

On May 24th, Mr. Phillip J. Dow, Executive Director of the Mendocino Council of Governments (MCOG), released a document titled State Route 128 Corridor Valley Trail Feasibility Study in Mendocino County. Actually, it was in the form of a Request for Proposals (an RFP) for the preparation of such a study. It was October 31, 2013, when the document was circulated online, by Alison Pernell, to invited “stakeholders.” Ms. Pernell performed good service in notifying as many “stakeholders” as could be identified prior to the holding the four “listening sessions” and a “community work­shop.” In this day and age, it is mandatory that such workshops and open meetings be held before a project that commits taxpayer dollars can move forward.

A good deal of the planning has already moved for­ward prior to the holding of last week’s public meetings. The consulting group contracted for the feasibility study is in place, Alta Planning. Alta Planning is the largest bicycle path planning firm in the country. It appears to be the logical choice. The consultant is tasked to “work closely” with MCOG, Caltrans, and a technical advisory group (TAG). As such, it will ultimately be TAG that represents stakeholders. Not to put too fine a point on it, the identification of a “stakeholder” is subject to inter­pretation. The major stakeholders are set out in the MCOG document. These are listed as MCOG, CSD/Cycked, Caltrans, Valley Trail Coalition, State Parks, the Anderson Valley Land Trust, Mendocino Department of Transportation, Planning and Building Services, and the Mendocino County Air Quality Man­agement District. These are the entities, along with Cal­trans, that will bear the responsibility of approving the final plan, design, and construction.

There is a rather extensive list of “other stakeholders.” It is this second group, partly comprised of individuals and groups that are not included in TAG (Technical Advisory Group) that will primarily benefit from such a trail. Local citizens (young and old), school students, and tourists are all identified as potential bene­ficiaries. The recreational and health benefits of such a trail are obvious. Businesses, from the wineries to the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, from the down­town retail outlets to wine tours could all benefit. Any attraction to the valley which brings in additional eco­nomic activity has obvious benefits. It is especially sig­nificant for an area that has a resident population of only about 2000 people. Attachment #1 of the MCOG docu­ment details how “the percent of families living below the Self-Sufficiency Standard is 35.2%.” It also notes that lack of growth and limited government funding in the valley is in part responsible for such conditions, as if anyone needs reminding.

Are there potential downsides to such a trail project? There was some tangential comment at the listening ses­sions about possible negative impacts. None of the expressed concerns, however, were picked up on and discussed. That could be explained as part of the process. That is, the sessions were designed to be “listening ses­sions.” There would be opportunity to address any con­cerns after the plan itself was in place. However, it did appear that it could just as well be that any problems, impediments, or limits to a final plan would be addressed not by the public per se, but by TAG. The select group of major stakeholders with expertise would make the final judgments and adjustments.

The construction of the valley trail, or any segment of it, will require the support and acquiescence of a large number of “stakeholders” whose properties would be directly impacted by the construction of a valley trail. There is a long list of private property owners, the Men­docino Redwood Company, California State Parks, and a host of businesses (wineries, for instance) who could be affected. Beyond the May 2014 scheduled date for sub­mission of a final plan, how much input will these stakeholders have? By then, a final route and plan should be in place. Consider in abbreviated form, just some of the challenges the valley trail project could or will face:

The 27-mile segment of Highway 128 from Clover­dale to Boonville is bounded almost exclusively by pri­vate property owners. Obtaining a right of way for the trail would entail a major outreach program to secure agreements for a six to eight foot wide trail. The trail may include both roadside and off-road construction. Whatever the disposition of property rights and access, the topography itself presents a major challenge. High­way 128 is a winding, hilly artery, with many sharp turns and “blind spots.” It is also very narrow for a good por­tion of the distance, with the steep hillsides coming right down to the very edge of the road pavement, where the drainage ditches and culverts cannot be disturbed. On the other side of the road, steep fall offs are often no more than two or three feet from the pavement. It is one thing to draw a line paralleling the road. It is a far different matter to plan where and how it will (or can) go.

In practical terms, it appeared obvious to many of the participants that the Boonville segment was likely to turn out to be the most feasible part of the project. But, feasi­bility is a matter up to the planners, not the stakeholders. At the downtown “listening session” a traffic expert on the planning team spent a good deal of time walking the attendees through the challenges of routing a bike and pedestrian trail through the center of town along High­way 128. It almost certainly would mean some loss of parking space, or a redesign of parking patterns. Safety issues would also have to be worked out. All this said, however, it did appear that the segment of the route that offered both the least engineering difficulties and the easiest path in terms of level ground and adequate space at the edges of the roadway may turn out to be the dis­tance from just south of Boonville to Philo. More than one participant made the observation that connecting Boonville to Philo, and possibly all the way to Navarro, could be considered not only a trail but also a means of better connecting the communities.

The listening session that provided some of the most important concerns about constructing and maintaining a trail was the one held at the Navarro Store. A good deal of comment focused on the fact that the 12 mile stretch of Highway 128, from the North Fork of the Navarro to the ocean presents major obstacles to building a path along the roadway. Steep, almost vertical, hillsides bound one side and on the other the Navarro River itself. If a route was planned through the Paul Dimmick Camp­ground could there be conflicting uses of the property? Could a meandering “soft surface” pathway be devel­oped without cutting recovering redwood stands or impact (sediment) to the river itself, in which there is an ongoing effort to restore salmonoids (coho and steel­head)? What if the trail involved Mendocino Redwood Company property? Michael Jani, President and Chief Forester for MRC expressed his support for a trail, while also nothing that there are risks to consider. He pointed out that there could be an increased fire danger due to opening up portions of the forest. Illegal pot grows were mentioned. Both MCR and State Parks, represented by Loren Rex, noted that some provision would be needed to insure proper trail maintenance and safety.

Finally, although alternative routes were suggested for consideration, such as the Flynn Creek Road to Comptche and then out to the mouth of Big River at the coast, the planning may be advanced to the point where alternatives are not to be given serious consideration. This is only conjecture, however.

* * *

As was observed at the outset of this report, a “multi-use off-road trail” designed for biking and hik­ing/walking would be a welcome addition to Anderson Valley’s infrastructure. Like mother and apple pie, who would want to object to it? But how likely is it to become a reality? The initial rough estimate is that such a trail could cost $40,000,000 ($40 million). No one can say quite where such a sum might come from. Other than the hugely controversial sum of monies being poured into the Willits bypass project, no other single government funded initiative in Mendocino comes close. In such a light, the proponents have their work cut out for them.

One resource that could help tip the balance in favor of constructing a trail, or any segment thereof, is a growing and enthusiastic groundswell of local support. The next opportunity to show such support will be the planned March 2014 working session where Alta Plan­ning, MCOG, and the TAG group present their prelimi­nary plan. By May 2014, the planning stage may be over. Whatever the outcome, you can and should have a voice. One way to insure that you are included is to contact Melissa Meader at 707-895-9541. 

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