Santa Rosa OKs public trail near Oakmont, but it’s complicated
In an effort to lay to rest long-simmering public discord surrounding access for bicyclists and pedestrians between Trione-Annadel State Park and the community of Oakmont, the Santa Rosa City Council unanimously agreed to officially designate a re-creational trail across a portion of the now-defunct wastewater treatment plant in Oakmont, with hopes that it will help to one day provide contiguous public access between Channel Drive in Trione-Annadel State Park and Stone Bridge Road in Oakmont.
“We need some solution for bicyclists, pedestrians and equestrians to have safe routes,” said council member Julie Combs at the March 28 meeting. With the City’s stamp of approval on a public path across the wastewater treatment plant property, which it owns, staff from the Transportation and Public Works department now have the green light to pursue negotiations for public access with adjacent property owners.
There are three properties that lie between Channel Drive and Stone Bridge Road: the city-owned wastewater treatment plant, a parcel owned by the Oakmont Villages Association (OVA), and a parcel owned by Brad Benson, which houses one of two Oak Creek RV & Self-Storage facilities. Historically, the way many pedestrians and cyclists accessed Channel Drive was via a paved service road from Stone Bridge Road, which lies on an easement on Benson’s property, then crossing the creek on a narrow service bridge on the water treatment plant property, and continuing up a gravel path to Channel Drive. However, in 2016, Benson posted “No Trespassing” signs along the service road in an effort to deter public use of his property, causing an outcry among Oakmont residents and other users.
To complicate matters, the City of Santa Rosa was in the middle of a six-year legal battle with the Villages at Wild Oak, a private community situated at the end of Channel Drive near Oakmont over the use by bicyclists of a pedestrian-only path from White Oak Drive to Channel Drive. In November 2016, The Villages at Wild Oak won their case, effectively closing off that route to cyclists.
With no prospect of using Wild Oak as a public access point, the City turned its attention again to the disputed access at Stone Bridge Road. While Benson had been open to the possibility of designating a formal public easement over his property in prior years, Jason Nutt, director of Transportation and Public Works, reported that Benson has “since concluded that having a public access easement across his property is not in his best interest and closed further discussion.”
In August 2016, the OVA OK’d the construction of a gravel path to bypass Benson’s property. The bypass trail, which was spearheaded by Oakmont resident Hugh Helm, and completed last month by volunteers from Oakmont and the Sonoma County Trails Council, leads from Stone Bridge Road, past the Oakmont Community Garden, and links up with the wastewater treatment property. While the OVA did not approve the trail for public use back in August, Nutt said that the OVA has “expressed the willingness to open a dialogue” about a public easement with the City of Santa Rosa on the recently completed trail. If that negotiation is successful, the wastewater treatment plant trail and the Oakmont trail will provide the first officially designated public access between Trione-Annadel State Park and Oakmont. Currently, none exists.
However, some Oakmont residents, including Helm himself, have voiced reluctance about opening the path to the general public, bicyclists and equestrians in particular.
“Oakmont Village is a quiet, safe, senior community. The speed limit is 25 mph, and golf carts roam the streets. Some of the seniors who enjoy the park do not have good hearing or balance, and are physically fragile. Therefore, even apart from the many issues a public easement raises (liability, maintenance, etc.), just the idea of a formal public easement is concerning,” wrote Helm in a letter to the Santa Rosa City Councilmembers. “Even though I am an avid cyclist, and I generally favor public access, in my view the new Oakmont trail should become part of a formal public easement only if the City satisfies Oakmont Village’s concerns, and ensures that the peace and tranquility of Oakmont Village will continue undiminished.”
OVA Board President Andie Altman said the OVA approved construction of the bypass trail with full understanding that at some point in the future there would need to be a conversation about public access. While Altman recognized some of the concerns that come with public use, like parking, safety and liability, she expressed hope that negotiations with the city will be able to mitigate them. The OVA Board will vote whether or not to move forward in a conversation with the city at its next meeting on April 18.
However, Nutt made it clear to council members that the city has only three options in this situation: to designate an official public path across the city’s property; continue the status quo of unofficially allowing the public to cross city property and opening the city up to liability concerns; or close the wastewater treatment property and bar access to the public completely. This would render the OVA trail obsolete.
With the loss of public bicycle access through the Wild Oak community, the city is in desperate need of a safe access point between Trione-Annadel State Park and the east side of Sonoma Valley. “Other routes put people on Highway 12,” said Santa Rosa City Mayor Chris Coursey, a cyclist himself. “I know this will be a preferred route.” Nutt suggested that the nature and volume of the public use will depend on how the city incorporates the route into its ADA Transition Plan and Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. If the city decides to develop it into a primary access point and classify it as a Class I bike path, for example, the bridge and path would have to be brought into compliance with Federal ADA standards, the estimated cost of which is unknown. Although the bridge has been inspected by a certified access specialist who concluded that no significant changes were required to designate the recreational trail for public use, Nutt said the narrow one-lane bridge is not designed to for heavy use by large groups of cyclists.
Nutt said he favored the trail as “a nice community connection” rather than a high-traffic route. Also, the fate of the now-closed wastewater treatment plant is still being discussed and that may also influence future public access of the property.
In the meantime, the Santa Rosa Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board (BPAB) has begun discussing alternative route options to connect Trione-Annadel State Park, Spring Lake Regional Park, Oakmont and Sonoma Highway in light of impending plans to build a 13-mile Sonoma Valley Trail along the highway corridor. The BPAB should have its recommendations narrowed down by May, but it has determined that a simultaneous local connection at the Oakmont wastewater treatment plant is appropriate and should be formalized.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and staff writer.