The Whitefish Cycle and Pedestrian Path Advisory Committee is working to have a missing stretch of the path along the Whitefish River completed.
City plans have long indicated the construction of an extension of the path between Kay Beller Park to the north towards a section of the path that runs between the river and the BNSF train station. However, problems have arisen with the planned construction of the section.
The Riverbend section is a 563-foot stretch of riverbank north of the Veterans Bridge on US 93 along the east bank of the Whitefish River. The section includes two parcels, including the Riverbend Condominium parcel with 370 feet of river frontage and much more northerly with 193 feet of frontage, according to an extensive committee report submitted to Whitefish City Council for review and possible action.
Currently, the trail stops right behind the Second Street Bridge, where steps lead to Miles Avenue. Trail users must follow Miles Avenue north before they can reconnect to the trail. The addition of the link was identified as a top priority in the city’s 2017 Connect Whitefish Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan.
The committee will present its report to the city council on Monday and work to ensure that the missing piece of the road is built. The Whitefish Park Board recently reviewed the report and supports the committee’s drive to complete the trail.
Parks and Recreation Director Maria Butts said the council would not make a decision on the path at its meeting on Monday. Due to the complexity of the issue, Butts said, city officials plan to recommend that the council hold a working meeting at a later date.
Committee chairman John Phelps said the path known as the Riverbend Section was challenging to develop. The property to the north has approved the path, but the Riverbend Condominium Homeowners Association is opposed to building the path between the condominium building and the river despite the city having an easement over the property.
“Although the city was granted bicycle / pedestrian easement, the builder built the condos near the Whitefish River, apparently without considering the route,” Phelps said in a letter to the council. “The HOA, which represents current condominium owners who would have had full easement knowledge at the time of purchase, are now against the path along the river. In response to their concerns, the committee assessed other routes but found none to be reasonably accessible or similarly safe for users. “
THE RIVER BEND Condo Association proposed a switchback route that would join the section of trail under the bridge via switchbacks up the bank, with the trail going through the paved condominium parking lot next to Miles Avenue. However, the Committee claims that the path so constructed would not only cause inconvenience for users, but would also be almost impossible for cyclists and users with mobility problems to navigate safely.
Because the trail would be built near the river, the committee also recommends that the trail use a boardwalk in areas where Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks requirements must be approved for the trail .
Phelps said the committee hopes the Riverbend HOA will understand the significance of the trail, but if not, the city should pursue the enforcement of the 1983 easement.
THE RIVER BEND The Condo Association has sought legal counsel, and on Thursday Alan McCormick, an attorney with the Garlington, Lohn & Robinson law firm, sent a letter to the city council explaining the homeowner’s position.
McCormick described the committee’s report as “results-oriented rather than an objective assessment of the relevant issues.” He went on to state that the homeowners “are making major exceptions to the report’s recommendation to bring a lawsuit against the Riverbend Condo Association and ask the court to rule that the Riverbend owners have violated their duty of good faith and fair trade and therefore your consent is no longer required so that the easement office can be determined by the court and the city can start construction. ‘”
McCormick noted that in 2019 the city met with Riverbend representatives in a “warm and informative” meeting. The homeowners were told that the city would be in touch for further discussions, but said this never happened until the housing association was brought to the attention of the committee’s draft report.
“The report is not an objective analysis of the possible alternatives to extending the Whitefish River Trail,” wrote McCormick. “Worse, it is falsely alleged that the Riverbend Condo Association and its members acted in bad faith.”
The condominium association is urging the city to remove a legal opinion from the report recommending the city to sue the Riverbend Condo Association.
THE COMMITTEE recommends that the city “immediately pursue the completion of the river route” through a three-pronged approach: first, to assert the validity of the existing easement between the condominiums and the river; second, commission or create a design for the trail with input from the community, including input from users representing users with mobility issues; and third, to amend its application for approval of FWP based on the new proposed draft and using the committee report on FWP approvals in similar situations as support for the application.
As further assistance in building a path in close proximity to a river, John Juras, a senior civil engineer at TD&H Engineering in Great Falls, wrote a letter to Whitefish City Council in response to questions about building rails near rivers. Juras said he was involved in the planning, design and construction of dozens of different hiking trails, including long, elevated hiking trails that have been built on the banks of the Sun and Missouri Rivers.
“I’ve seen photos of the proposed one [Whitefish Trail] Construction site and verified maps showing the proximity of the proposed route to the condo building and the river, ”Juris wrote. “I saw aerial photos of the construction site. None of these challenges should prevent you from moving forward on this important part of your community’s network of trails. “
A GROUP of Concerned Citizens known as Safe Trails, seeks public support from Whitefish in advocating the construction of the committee recommended section of the trail.
The hiking group considers the current situation to be dangerous and the recommendation of the committee is the best alternative.
“Stand up for the public’s long-standing right to enjoy a trail along the Whitefish River,” said the group, referring to the decades of work that went into developing the trail.
The council meets at Whitefish City Hall on Monday, November 1st at 7:10 pm.