Despite firm public opposition, the Flathead County Planning Board on Wednesday voted unanimously to send a scaled-back version of a county trails plan to the county commissioners for final consideration instead of an earlier, more comprehensive plan.
The 14-page plan, developed by the county Weed, Parks and Recreation Board, would be an addendum to the county growth policy. The scaled-back plan focuses almost entirely on maintenance of existing trails and recommends continuing a moratorium on new trail construction “until a sustainable funding mechanism” is in place to maintain all existing and proposed trails.
The Parks and Recreation Department is currently responsible for maintaining nearly 34 miles of paved paths, including the Rails to Trails network between Kila and Somers and the Gateway to Glacier trail system connecting Hungry Horse and West Glacier. It also maintains 15 miles of unpaved gravel and natural trails.
About 10 people spoke in opposition to the new plan during public comment.
Mark Crowley, president of Rails to Trails of Northwest Montana, called for the Planning Board to reject the Parks and Recreation Board plan and send another plan – referred to as the “PATHS2 plan” – to the commissioners.
The Parks and Recreation Board tabled the PATHS2 plan in February 2019. The comprehensive plan was developed over a year-and-a-half with substantial public input by a group called the People, Athletics, Travel, Health and Safety (PATHS) Advisory Committee.
“We are here to work with the county to maintain these trails,” Crowley said.
Crowley said the asphalt is deteriorating on the paved trail between Kalispell and Kila and maintenance is “past due.”
“These trails benefit everybody even if you never set foot on them,” Crowley said. He explained they improve property values and keep pedestrians off busy highways.
Mayre Flowers, representing Citizens For a Better Flathead, said “trails are a critical aspect of our economy and our quality of life.”
She said the PATHS2 plan went through “a very public process” and needed to come before the Planning Board, and suggested the board table the Parks and Recreation Board’s proposed plan and look at how that plan could be integrated with the PATHS2 plan.
Jim Watson, a former member of the Weed, Parks and Recreation Board, said “the plan in front of you tonight was written behind closed doors by Weed and Park staff,” as opposed to the PATHS2 plan. He said the Parks and Recreation Board’s plan should be revised by professionals “that know what they’re doing.
“I don’t think the PATHS2 plan should be held hostage while that plan is being worked on,” Watson added.
Despite the public comments, and no obligation for the Planning Board to send anything to the county commissioners, board member Greg Stevens immediately recommended forwarding the plan to the commissioners.
Mark Mussman, director of the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Department, cautioned the board on sending anything forward.
“Procedurally we’re not at that point to kick it on down the road, quite frankly, to the commissioners. I feel uncomfortable doing that,” Mussman said.
“I’m considering tonight like a chance for public comment, and to see what the board thinks about” the plan, Mussman said. He added the board could make a recommendation to the Parks and Planning Departments, rather than the commissioners, about “what might be a reasonable path forward.”
Mussman suggested they could wait for the Planning Department to return to the board with an official staff report, which is what the board would “typically do” with a growth policy amendment.
Board member Sandra Nogal said she saw the document as a “snapshot” of the trail situation in Flathead County, including what the county can and cannot pay for.
“We still need to come up with something that is the plan,” she said. “I don’t see what there is to move on to the commissioners, instead that we’re starting to talk about this.”
Board member Dean Sirucek said the plan did not meet the criteria of a plan. He said he worked in the U.S. Forest Service for 35 years and was occasionally involved in the implementation of forest plans.
“This does not, in my mind, meet the criteria of a public plan where you set out goals and objectives like was in the original document.” He said the plan was more like a “maintenance plan” and should not be a replacement for anything in the county growth plan.
“This is your maintenance plan appendix to the growth plan, that’s what I see here myself,” he said.
But Stevens still insisted on forwarding the plan to the county commissioners with a favorable recommendation.
“We’ve got to figure out what we’ve got, how the hell we’re going to pay for it, and then we can go forward,” he said.
Board Chairman Jeff Larsen said, “If we forward this as an addendum with the idea that there’s a lot of people in the community that want a comprehensive update of a comprehensive plan, I’d like to get some direction from them [the commissioners] to see if they want us to do that.”
Larsen said he is concerned about the amount of work involved in a new trails plan, but Mussman reminded the board there was a “draft comprehensive plan” to replace the trails plan already in existence – the tabled PATHS2 plan.
“It’s not like we necessarily have to start from square one again,” Mussman said. “The information and the data collected in that project is not that old, and we could move forward perhaps with parts of that document plus this.”
Reporter Colin Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or email@example.com