Nearly every speaker stood in opposition to moving forward with planning for a trail in San Juan Valley at a public hearing Tuesday, Nov. 7, on San Juan County’s six-year Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).
Included on the TIP’s list of priorities is Zylstra Lake Trail, a proposed 3-mile multimodal trail that would go from Friday Harbor to Zylstra Lake.
The audience in the county council’s hearing room overflowed into an adjacent room and each person was allotted three minutes to speak.
Farmers believe that a having public trail through their property would hurt their efforts. Fear of trespassing, spooking farm animals, littering and other damage was mentioned. John Wilson said, farming “is disappearing fast” and “we have to find a way to slow down tourism. … We’re fighting for our lives here.”
Lisa Crosby Guard said, “If you’re asking for a trail, you’re telling the farmers, you don’t want us.”
Several speakers mentioned their pioneer family roots. Guard Sundstrom said his family began farming in 1862. “I continue to farm and feed people,” he said; and he hopes his family’s land will allow “another seven generations” to continue farming. Rex Guard commented on the agricultural nature of the valley , saying, “We have fought to keep it that way”.
Most speakers seemed to assume the trail would be built for visitors. Steve Hudson questioned whether it is a critical need, saying it would be “catering to the convenience of those who do not live here.”
The subject of tourism was already on residents’ minds as the public comment period for the draft Destination Management Plan (DMP) had just ended on Oct. 31. And while DMP did not mention the Zylstra Lake trail per se, its support for more trails and other infrastructure to accommodate tourists drew similar opposition. [See “Managing tourism at core of destination plan controversy,” Salish Current, Oct. 29, 2023]
Questioning the process
Several people mentioned that they had not known anything about the proposed Zylstra Lake Trail until Rep. Rick Larsen came to San Juan Island Jan. 20 to announce the commitment of $5.2 million to the project. Deborah Strasser described how a “phone tree” was used that day to get the word out to islanders to join the meeting at the lake.
Two-and-a-half years ago, in April 2021, a Resolution in Support of Town-to-Zylstra -Lake Trail was passed by the county council, and drew little public attention at the time.
Adam Eltinge (elected Tuesday as commissioner to the San Juan Island Park and Recreation District) said “this project hurts everyone” and that there was an “egregious violation of due process.” He said that “islanders are hurting,” and objected to spending that kind of money on a bike trail.
“The county has yet to engage the property owners,” Jeff Gillette commented.
Steve Ulvi said he was a “trails guy” who had participated in building many trails on the island as a volunteer for the land bank, and that he also likes to ride electric bikes and likes farming. However, as an experienced planner, he said, he is opposed to the plan for the trail. The idea is “flawed” he said, mentioning inconsistent information.
Marilyn O’Connor objected to the inclusion of the trail as the number one priority in the TIP and said that “It appears that funding was sought before adequate public process.”
Public Works Director Colin Huntemer said that being listed as number one does not mean that it is the highest priority on the project list.
In response to a question from council member Christine Minney — “If projects are not planned or understood why does it get put on the TIP?” — Public Works project manager Mackenzie Sims explained that placing it on the TIP means that the need for the project is understood, but that details need still to be worked out. Being included on the TIP allows for continued work on developing a project.
Friends of the San Juans staff attorney James McCubbin thanked the County for including trails, sidewalks and widened roads in the TIP. He said there has been “strong support expressed through multiple surveys.”
Emily Geyman spoke about the need for respect for the farming history of the island. She said that at present time, when you leave Friday Harbor on San Juan Valley Road as it goes from town into the countryside, it is “clearly not suburbia … a value we care about.” Adding a 10-foot-wide paved path with electric bikes will change that, she fears.
Sandy Sundstrom Davis got the last word, expressing how important it is for the island to still have vegetables and meat to feed islanders. “It’s important that farmers are here,” she stressed.
Council discussion after public testimony included clarifying the amount of funding the county would be responsible for if the project were developed. Project manager Grant Carlton said the County’s share would be 13.5% of the total grant of $5.2 million, or $825,000. This is “a six-to-one match” which Carlton called “unheard of “ and said would be a “pretty solid leveraging of County funds.”
Asked by Minney whether “removing the project from the TIP would void any opportunity to look at various routes or destinations,” Huntemer said that including the trail proposal in the TIP allows the project to move forward but does not commit to any particular alignment. “By listing it, you’re allowing staff to continue working on it , to continue to bring it forward. By taking it off the list, we will not work on it,” he explained.
“I want to make it clear that I heard everything you said, and I am taking this as seriously as possible,” Minney told the audience. “I am not continuing this [hearing] to continue the pain, but to be sure to open every door and every window, and to confer with staff.”
Council member Jane Fuller said she also welcomed the opportunity to delay and take more time to absorb all the input.
The council voted to continue the hearing to Nov. 27, when a decision on the TIP is expected — with the future of the proposed trail in the balance.
— Reported by Nancy DeVaux