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Valley Trails: What Is Feasible?

When is it reasonable to spend precious moneys to confirm the obvious? Phillip Dow, the head of the Mendocino Council of Governments (MCOG), insists that any initiative, such as the Valley Trails Initiative, must put every idea on the table and see where it leads. So it was that Caltrans encouraged the Valley Trails group to apply for a grant, with MCOG as facilitator. Caltrans then approved a grant for $132,000 for a “feasibility study.” It should be noted that MCOG and Caltrans have a close association, one that focuses on transportation issues in Mendocino County. In due course, the grant for the “feasibility study” was awarded to Alta Planning and Design, a company that is in the business of planning bike trails. A disconnect between reality and sky-blue ambitions was not long in coming.

Of course, the Valley Trails group wants a bike path. To date, no one has made official note of the fact that as an Anderson Valley initiative, the proposed trail includes areas clearly outside the Anderson Valley scope of authority. From Cloverdale to Yorkville and from the Flynn Creek Road to the coast, more than half the proposed distance of such a trail is outside the Anderson Valley zone, as defined by both the Anderson Valley Fire Department map and the Anderson Valley Community Services District boundaries. Of course MCOG and Caltrans want a project they can sink their teeth into. And, as Mr. Dow is candid enough to admit, anything is feasible, if money is no object. By inference, it also suggests that boundaries are no limit.

And so the official planning stage began in November, 2013. Local residents and “stakeholders” were invited to attend five “listening sessions,” which were held mid-day during the week, and two follow-up evening workshops. The planners (MCOG, Caltrans, Alta Planning and Design, and the Valley Trails Initiative group) had already set the table. Note that the management group for this project includes only MCOG and Caltrans officials. From the first meetings, what are known as “listening sessions,” they had a plan in place with detailed maps and talking points designed to promote a 51 mile bike and pedestrian trail from Cloverdale to Highway 1 on the coast. The bicycle group was indeed well prepared. Designated “facilitators” (Alta Planning staff, Caltrans, MCOG, and the trail group) were clearly in charge. A coordinated script rapidly emerged to promote the supposed benefits of the trail. From November 2013 to the present, this script of benefits has not changed. Nor has it come to grips with the serious issues that must be dealt with at some vague points in the future. The promotional features for building a trail include “connecting” the communities (Boonville, schools, Hendy Woods, Philo) by trail, getting people out of their cars, improved safety, general health and fitness, and an economic boon to Anderson Valley. The local citizens who showed up to listen and give their views had no prior preparation for the meetings. Indeed, as stated above, the listening sessions were held mid-day, when working people had no opportunity to participate. The reactions and concerns of attendees were off-the-cuff. Generally, most attendees expressed general support for some kind of trail. Whatever cautions or concerns were raised had to contend with a prepared roll-out of the plan already in place. In the present climate of local initiatives of any kind, the best prepared group is likely to prevail regardless of the needs to consider change or compromise. Vague assurances were given that whatever the downsides of the plan, they could be dealt with at a later stage, such as when a formal EIR (Environmental Impact Report) and other review steps are taken. Implicitly, the very concept of what is feasible came down to not what is practical or makes good sense, but what can be done, IF money is no object.

One important obvious fact has never seen the day of light. If indeed there existed a 51 mile long bike path from Cloverdale to Highway 1, who would actually take advantage of the trail? It is expected that local residents and visitors would make good use of the core segment from Boonville to Philo and Hendy Woods. But what of the rest of the distance involved? The vast majority of the miles under consideration are in all likelihood to be utilized only by avid biking enthusiasts, those interested in challenging courses over long distances. Picture vans arriving at the “trailhead” at Cloverdale and dropping off their paid passengers. Hours later, at Highway 1, the van picks up its exhausted cyclists and drives them back to San Francisco or Santa Rosa. Logic suggests that few hikers or pedestrians would actually use segments beyond the Core of Segments 3 and 4 (the central valley component). What Economic benefit? Vintners, those I have talked with, are quick to point out that cyclists, the few who do stop, taste but very seldom actually buy wine. What about the restaurant and deli trade? Cycling enthusiasts are into meeting the challenge of the trail, not lounging at eateries. So much for the vaulted economic benefits that have never been clearly identified or quantified.

At the outset no cost estimates were given. Vague assurances and assumptions were given that property rights would be respected. Conflict uses of designated areas (such as timber operations or State Park campgrounds) would be resolved. Whatever the impacts to the environment (tree removals, bulldozing, threats to fish and animal species, increased fire hazards, possible safety along the trail, maintenance) would all be addressed at some unspecified future time. A number of local attendees raised questions about competing uses of the land (especially State Park and timber properties), fire danger, opening up some areas to pot growers, threats to the Navarro River, the possible cutting of redwoods to provide turnouts, and such. Above all, there was a clear understanding on the part of “locals,” if not the planners, that some of the assumptions of what it would take to build a trail along the Highway 128 corridor simply made no sense. Privately, at the meetings and in response to questions posed by this writer to local residents along the SR128 corridor, to a person the opinions expressed concerning the feasibility of Segments 1 and 5, the consensus was “no way,” “impossible,” “makes no sense.” The topography along the highway between Cloverdale and Boonville would require a Herculean effort on Caltrans part, thus the $260 million initial estimate. As for Segment 5, a number of people commented that “it is best to leave it alone,” “why do harm to the environment,” and that the 14 mile drive as it exists, “is a treasure in itself.”

Some insight into the apparent methodology used by Alta Planning is in order. To begin with, who showed up at the “listening sessions” scheduled for the middle of the day? Generally, and I include myself in this group, there were retired folks. Also attending were a few “stakeholders,” such as representatives of Mendocino Redwood Company and a State Parks official. Add homemakers, teenagers, and whoever happens to come upon the meetings, and you have a fair idea who was “listened to.” The two workshops, held in the evening, were better attended. However, even the best attended workshop included a total of 47 people, by Alta Planning’s own estimate. It is assumed that this 47 people included Alta Planning, the Valley Trails people, MCOG representatives, and others with a “vested” interest.

Perhaps “vested” interest is a bit strong, but they do have a voice and were there to “facilitate.” Whatever the total number of attendees, out of an affected area population of perhaps 2,700, less than 4% of the total resident base was heard. From my own observation, there is no evidence that a ground survey of landowners was ever undertaken.

In order to improve the validity of the study, a representative sampling of actual land and business owners along the proposed corridor should have been included in the study design. An example of the claims made that outreach was included is the Yorkville Highlands Growers and Vintners Association. They provided a letter in support of the initiative. However, this organization lists a total of six vintners in its appellation area. I spoke with three vintners along this corridor, of which not one was contacted by any group. Admittedly, it so happens none of the three are listed as members of the association.

I also spoke to ranchers along the corridor. My informing them of the proposed trail was the first they had heard of it. As for the Navarro River Corridor (Segment 1 of the study), except for a handful of locals who attended the listening session, most were unaware of the initiative. One resident ruefully asked, “Did anyone think to ask the deer and bears what they thought of a trail through “their territory?” For a project that, by Alta Planning’s own initial estimate might cost $379 million and counting, this is not the kind of planning that should give anyone confidence. Not only were key potential participants not surveyed, virtually every concern regarding environmental impacts, conflicting uses, regulatory hurdles, and more were not addressed. Vague, unspecified assurances do not foster confidence that due diligence is being taken to insure that the full scope of the proposed project has been addressed, is reasonable, or is “feasible” (or practical).

Objective concerns have not been considered with any specificity. In early July, when I spoke with Melissa Meader about the draft final report, she said that of course her group still wants it all. As to cost, she was of the opinion that since Caltrans has lots of money for such projects, it should not be a concern. Someone is going to make use of such funds. She wants a trail, so why not make a bid for the money?

Well, according to Mr. Dow, as of this last week, the total Caltrans budget statewide for such transportation projects amounts to $360 million. Is there any scenario by which Anderson Valley, with 2100 residents out of a state population of 31 million can conceivably garner support to corner the entire state’s budget and then some for such a project? Note that, as far as I can discern from the 80-page final report, there is no place where the planners step back and candidly say that some portion of the project makes sense, but other segments simply do not. They leave such determination to those who will ultimately manage the project and seek funding.

Where did the “feasibility study” come down on the side of common sense? Alta Planning could have made it clear that a “demonstration project” be the focus for the entire project. This would include Segment 3 and most of 4, which provides for a bike and pedestrian trail from downtown Boonville to the schools, on to Philo, and then to Hendy Woods. This is identified as the “Short Range” phase of five miles of bike and pedestrian trail. The cost estimate is at $4,894,142. That is less than 1.3% of the initial cost estimate.

What the feasibility study could also have accomplished is to serve the interests of the SR128 corridor as a whole by taking off the table the Navarro River Corridor (Segment 1) and Cloverdale to Boonville (Segment 5). Any Caltrans project to build out the Cloverdale to Boonville Segment would cost at least $260 million. Verbal assurances that this is not likely, that it is impossible, or that it is not going to happen are just that — verbal assurances and not in writing. In the final document, both segments are still presented as “Long Term” possibilities.

Alta Planning suggests that it might be possible to build an “off-highway” trail from Cloverdale to Boonville, but not one that includes Caltrans. Funding would have to come from some other source. Every landowner would have to agree to such a trail “encroaching” on their properties. Or, additional funds would have to be found for acquisition through eminent domain or fee simple purchase.

As for the Navarro Corridor Segment, “conflicting uses” need to be overcome. State Park visitors have an established right to their campgrounds. Mendocino Redwood Company has a right to protect its lands from trespass, increased fire hazards, pot growers, and the like. A host of regulatory hurdles, which are in place for a good reason, need to be addressed.

Among the agencies involved would be State Parks, whose mission is to preserve and protect lands under its jurisdiction, US Army Corp of Engineers, the Coastal Commission, and Fish and Wildlife Service. There is little doubt that even a meandering trail, one that according to Alta Planning would have to depart from the minimum standards for such a trail, would impact the river with trash, sediment, and other disturbances, at the very time the future for salmonoid restoration efforts are going forward.

An injunction should have guided the planning: First: Do no harm. Those who live along the Navarro Corridor are likely to raise concerns over Caltrans building added pull-outs along the corridor. The final report lists at least five so-called constrained areas along the route. Such areas, and there are more than five, are places where the hillsides almost vertically come down to the roadway, with no room for shoulders and on the other side fall off directly into the river. There are sharp hairpin turns, blind spots, and drainage problems. Then there are the standards to consider, such as a minimum eight-foot width to a trail. Why establish minimum standards and then, when it is obvious they cannot be honored, provide exceptions?

Who believes that mitigation efforts due to the loss of mature redwoods, increased sedimentation, and other impacts can or will be adequately remedied? Where will moneys come from for ongoing maintenance and clean up along the trail? Given the yearly flooding of the trail, who will restore it on an ongoing basis? In sum, there are a number of what Alta Planning vaguely alludes to as “fatal flaws.” None of these have been openly and objectively addressed. Again, think of the way the term “feasibility” is used by planners. Feasibility does not appear to mean what is practical, or even desirable by the majority of the citizens involved. In order to build a 51-mile long trail too many fundamental concerns have yet to be addressed. At a later stage, perhaps, the claim would be made that mitigations are required, minimum standards suspended, and the rights and concerns of some must be put aside. As stated at the outset (MCOG), with enough money, anything is possible.

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