Last night the Fairbanks Borough Assembly postponed voting on the Comprehensive Recreational Trails Plan update until February. It’s a good decision.
Several assembly members had concerns about how individual property owners might be affected by the plan. They have instructed borough staff to try to work out those issues. Had the assembly been forced to vote on the plan last night, there’s a good chance it would have failed. If the issues can be resolved satisfactorily – and no new issues arise that can’t be addressed – then there’s a good chance the plan will pass. (Re new potential issues, I have an idea on how trail advocates might be able to help. See the bottom of this post.)
It’s possible some adjustments might be made to the plan. If so, and they are not drastic, it’s well worth the wait of a few months. As long as the bulk of the plan passes.
So, please be patient. If you comment to the assembly or make comments on social media, please don’t disparage the assembly members who have concerns. They are valid. And these things can be worked out.
The great news is that more than 30 people came to testify and no one condemned the plan! A small handful of people did raise concerns. Almost everyone spoke in favor of the plan, and even most of those with concerns pointed out they overall supported the plan.
So, thank you to everyone who showed up, called in, or otherwise contacted the assembly. (Assembly members indicated they were inundated with emails.) You made a big impression. They definitely know we care about our trails and think the trails plan process was a good one. (Due largely to all the testimony, the meeting didn’t get out until after 11:30 p.m.)
Right now, I don’t have much advice on how to act other than just be patient. Your help will be needed when the plan comes up again in February. I and others will let you know what you can do. (I do have one idea on how some people might be able to act now. See the bottom of this post.)
The assembly members with concerns certainly didn’t give any indication they are anti-trails. Mostly, they just don’t want private landowners steamrolled by the process. It’s a valid point. I respect that. I am a property owner in the borough. If I felt like the system was disregarding my rights, I would want someone like that in my corner.
I know the borough made a strong effort to reach out to everyone impacted by the plan, but things can fall through the cracks, both with the borough and with citizens. The wait will be worth it if these concerns can be ironed out.
SALCHA AREA TRAIL
The most concerning testimony was a woman from Salcha who said she only recently became aware that her property was involved in plan. She and her husband own 111 acres off Johnson Road. The trails plan shows a proposed trail crossing her property and coming close to her house. She said she was never contacted about the plan. She also said she recently discovered there is an easement that runs across her property that apparently was there from the 1960s.
At this time, I don’t have any details about the situation, so I can’t give any perspective on the woman’s claims. I have no idea if the borough specifically tried to contact her and her husband other than the blanket claim by borough staff that they attempted to contact all affected landowners. It’s possible the easement she spoke about and the proposed trail are one and the same or at least are related. Borough staff will work with her on the issue. From what she was saying, it’s likely an agreement can be hammered out. She said she was open to having the trail on another part of her property.
One issue brought up by Assemblywoman Haney is trailheads that don’t have official parking areas. To access some trails, people park on the road near driveways and houses. This can sometimes cause problems (driveways blocked, trash left behind, dogs running loose). I spoke with her after the meeting and verified that one person who called her about this issue is from my own neighborhood. I know about the situation. I don’t think anything can be changed in the plan to help alleviate the issue and I don’t think the new plan will make the situation worse, but I will investigate and see if I can help resolve it.
I firmly believe that the best solution to solve this issue in general is to have more and better official trailheads with parking. The trail plan will help with that, allowing the borough to seek out funding to develop proper trailheads. More trailheads will help disperse use, hopefully reducing pressure on existing trailheads. Also, more new trails will give people other options, further dispersing use.
ACE LAKES CONNECTOR TRAIL
This trail has come up before. The Platting Board voted to remove it from the plan. The Planning Commission voted to have it changed from a Category B trail to Category C. Category C trails – “neighborhood trails” – do not have any specific legal coverage in the plan. The upside is that landowners have a great deal of control about how the trails are dealt with and who can access them. The downside is that without legal access guaranteed to the public, the borough can’t really spend funds on them, as it should be. Two people at the meeting spoke on both sides of this issue. One wants the Ace Lake Connector Trail to be changed back to Category B so that public funds can be used to help solve access and use issues. (The trail is in a wet area and has been damaged by four-wheelers using it in summer.) The other person was less clear about what he wanted, but I think he wants the trail to remain Category C but doesn’t like that doing so won’t help solve the access and damage issues. In other words, no easy answers. There doesn’t seem to be any way the trails plan can solve that issue.
WEST ISBERG TRAIL
A 1,000-foot branch connector trail from West Isberg Road to a trail in the Tanana Valley Forest has also come up before. The Platting Board and Planning Commission voted to remove it from the plan. One woman spoke about this and said she was happy the trail was removed. She said there are better alternatives for access. I also don’t have any details about that claim.
A man also brought up concerns about trails between Amanita and ESRO roads. He is pro-trails and doesn’t have any overall problems with the plan. (I spoke to him during a break. He helps maintain trails in his area.) However, a portion of a trail he has used for years with an ATV is now closed to motorized use. But that change doesn’t have anything to do with the current trails plan or the new one. The landowner has designated all the trails on the property as non-motorized. (It is the Audubon Riedel Nature Reserve owned by the Audubon Society.)
People can do that under either plan unless a trail already has a dedicated easement that specifies the trail is motorized. In fact, if a landowner wants to shut down a trail on the plan, they can do that. (As was done on a portion of the Tanana Valley Railroad Trail in Goldstream Valley.) The plan only has real legal teeth if the land is subdivided, then a trail on the plan must have a dedicated easement unless a variance is granted. (And, really, the teeth comes from a combination of the borough’s subdivision laws and the trails plan. See how far into the weeds you can get with this?)
WHAT YOU CAN DO
As I mentioned before, there’s not much trail advocates can do right now. But there is one thing. If you own property and don’t like how the plan affects you, or you know someone in that situation, please contact Bryant Wright, borough trails coordinator (firstname.lastname@example.org/907-459-7401). Or have them contact me: Eric Troyer (email@example.com). If you know someone who owns property impacted by the plan and you don’t know how they feel, please reach out to them and ask. This includes people who own land near trailheads that don’t have any official parking.
One of the biggest dangers is that at the February meeting one or more private landowners come to the meeting and claim they have been adversely impacted by the plan and were never contacted. Or that they have been contacted but their issue hasn’t been resolved. (Such as the trailhead parking issue in my area.) Even if the issue can’t be solved by the plan, it’s bad to have these issues come up at the last minute without being able to find out if they are valid or not.
If that happens, the plan will at best again be postponed. At worst, it could get shot down because of a couple of unhappy landowners. Better to get those issues resolved before the meeting, even if that means a trail is removed from the plan. (And it would be great to have private landowners who support how their land is impacted by the plan contact the assembly. I’ll put out a call for that closer to the meeting.)
The big picture here is the overall plan. If the community can present a truly unified front the assembly without any landowners being steamrolled, I feel confident it can pass.