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Whitefish looks for way to complete river trail

by Heidi Desch and Lynnette Hintze Daily Inter Lake
| October 31, 2021 12:00 AM

The Whitefish Bicycle and Pedestrian Path Advisory Committee is advocating that a missing piece of the trail 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.

The Riverbend section is a 563-foot stretch of riverbank north of Veterans Bridge on U.S. 93 along the east bank of the Whitefish River. The section spans two parcels, including the Riverbend Condominium parcel containing 370 feet of river frontage, and a lot to the north with 193 feet of frontage, according to an extensive committee report that has been submitted to the Whitefish City Council for review and potential action.

Currently, the trail stops just past the Second Street bridge where steps lead upward 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 committee will present its report to the City Council on Monday, advocating that the missing piece of the trail be constructed. The Whitefish Park Board recently reviewed the report and supports the committee’s pursuit of trail completion.

Parks and Recreation Director Maria Butts said the 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 plan to recommend that the council hold a work session at a later date.

John Phelps, chair of the committee, said the piece of trail known as the Riverbend Section has been a challenge to develop. The property to the north has agreed to the trail, but the Riverbend Condominium Homeowners Association 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,” Phelps said in a letter to the 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.”

THE RIVERBEND Condo Association 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. However, the committee maintains the trail constructed this way would not only inconvenience users, but also 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.

Phelps said the committee 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 RIVERBEND Condo Association has sought legal representation, and on Thursday, Alan McCormick, an attorney with the Garlington, Lohn & Robinson law firm, sent a letter to the City Council, explaining the homeowners’ position.

McCormick called the committee’s report “outcome driven and not an objective evaluation of the relevant issues.” He further stated the homeowners “take great exception to the report’s recommendation to file litigation against the Riverbend Condo Association and ask the Court to ‘rule that the Riverbend owners have breached their obligation of good faith and fair dealing and as a result their consent is no longer needed in order for the easement location to be fixed by the court, and for the City to begin construction.’”

McCormick pointed out the city met with Riverbend representatives in 2019 in a meeting that was “cordial and informative.” The homeowners were told the city would be in touch for further discussions, but he said that never happened until the condo association was alerted to the committee’s draft report.

“The report is not an objective analysis of the possible alternatives to an extension of the Whitefish River Trail,” McCormick wrote. “Worse, it falsely claims the Riverbend Condo Association and its members have acted in bad faith.”

The condo association is asking the city to delete a legal opinion in the report the recommends the city sue the Riverbend Condo Association.

THE COMMITTEE is recommending the city “immediately pursue the completion of the river trail” through a three-pronged approach: First, assert the validity of its existing easement between the condos and the river; second, commission or create a design for the trail with community input, including input from those representing users with mobility challenges; and third, amend its application for a permit from FWP based on the new proposed design and using the committee report pertaining to FWP approvals in similar situations as support for the application.

As further support for building a trail in close proximity to a river, John Juras, a senior civil engineer with TD&H Engineering in Great Falls, wrote a letter to the Whitefish City Council in response to questions about building rails near rivers. Juras said he has been involved in planning, designing and constructing dozens of different trails, including lengthy elevated trails built on the banks of the Sun and Missouri rivers.

“I have seen photographs of the proposed [Whitefish Trail] construction site and reviewed maps showing the proximity of the proposed trail to the condo building and the river,” Juris wrote. “I have seen aerial pictures of the site. None of these challenges should inhibit your decision to move forward with this important piece of your community’s trail network.”

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

The trail group asserts the current situation is dangerous and the committee’s recommendation is the best alternative.

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

The council meets on Monday, Nov. 1 at 7:10 p.m. at Whitefish City Hall.

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