Friday, July 18, 2014

River park plans divide city, some Hulen Meadows residents

Ketchum is moving forward with plans, but progress is slow

Express Staff Writer

A kayaker and a fisherman recreate at the Hulen Meadows Pond last month. Photo by Roland Lane

     While the plans for a river park north of Ketchum remain hotly contested, the residents of Hulen Meadows subdivision, Ketchum city officials and the nonprofit Wood River Land Trust agree on one thing: the Hulen Meadows Pond is filled with sediment and algae, and needs to be excavated.

     The city has been negotiating over a parcel of federal land north of Ketchum—more than 300 acres—to create a river park surrounding the Hulen Meadows Pond for several years now. The pond is situated on that public land, which is administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management.               

     “If the river park is created, the city of Ketchum will assume responsibility for maintenance of the pond, which is slowly filling with sediment,” an informational document from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department states.

     The city originally applied to gain control of the land to construct a municipal well at the BLM-managed Sun Peak day-use site just south of the subdivision. Smith “inherited” the project when she became director of parks more than three years ago.

     Now, the city believes, more needs to be done. The designated “drop structures” built for kayakers in the 1990s are in varying states of disintegration. If there was a flood that reached the same level of intensity as the one that occurred in 2006, there’s a good chance silt and debris would be deposited in front of some Ketchum homes, said Scott Boettger, executive director of the Wood River Land Trust.

     “What our designer is proposing is using those existing drop structures to make play waves for kayakers,” Smith said. “And at the same time, mitigating for flood danger and restoring environmental aspects of the system.”

     Besides conducting an environmental assessment and excavating the pond, the city has plans to construct bathrooms, a parking lot with a pedestrian bridge connecting to the recreation site and a picnic shelter on the BLM land. Both Smith and Boettger cited problems with access for disabled people that would require city dollars to fix.

     The cost of the project has been estimated at $2.5 million, of which some $600,000 has already been spent on permitting, according to Smith. She believes the final cost will ultimately be decreased because the city has significantly scaled back the project. Efforts are under way to raise money to support the project.

     The Ketchum Parks and Recreation Department would work in tandem with the Land Trust, should the plans go through.

     “The Wood River Land Trust would oversee riparian, vegetation and habitat restoration to benefit fish and other wildlife,” according to the city document. “The Ketchum Parks and Recreation Department would oversee management and maintenance of the recreation components.”

     The parking lot and proposed infrastructure on the western side of the river is what alarms a number of Hulen Meadows residents.

     Consultant Jima Rice, a longtime Hulen Meadows resident, has circulated a petition and spearheaded a website called “Protect Hulen Pond.”

     Hulen Meadows resident Bob Jonas—the father of Ketchum Mayor Nina Jonas—wrote an op-ed published in the Idaho Mountain Express on Wednesday, July 2, expressing the subdivision residents’ satisfaction with the river park plans. A follow-up op-ed from some Hulen residents in the Wednesday, July 9, paper disagreed with Jonas. It stated that only two out of the 10 Hulen Meadows Homeowner Association board members support the plan for the river park in its entirety. The letter had 11 signatories, including Rice.

     Rice said in an interview that she, along with other Hulen Meadows residents, want greater transparency with city decisions when it comes to the project. Citing no traffic control or traffic study on adjacent roads, she said she believes there is already enough parking near the pond.

     She said the original design cited 35 spots—while Smith said they were down to 12 spots. There is a small parking lot across Sage Road—a main road that dissects the subdivision—but recreationists are required to cross state Highway 75 in order to access the pond.

     Rice proposes that the public rely on a large, Idaho Transportation Department lot on the east side of the river that she estimates can hold 100 cars, and create a pedestrian bridge to connect parking to the recreation spot.

     However, Smith counters that closer parking and spots for people with disabilities are still necessary.

     “We are, in fact, proposing to utilize the ITD lot on the east side of the river, as well as proposing a pedestrian bridge; however, we feel that because the pond area sees the current highest use during the hot summer months, it’s worthwhile to construct a parking area adjacent to the pond,” Smith said.

     “One of Hulen residents’ main concerns is people parking along Paintbrush Lane to access the nearest part of the pond with a vehicle so they can get their float toys and boats, picnic supplies, and young children to the pond without multiple trips.”

     While an earlier plan called for three pedestrian bridges, Smith said the city is now considering just one.

     “[Hulen Meadows] residents are concerned about pedestrian activity on Sage Road, which is another reason for the pond-area parking lot and the pedestrian bridge,” Smith said. “The pedestrian bridge would be ADA-accessible and have ‘pull-out’ areas for viewing whitewater action below.”

     As for the plans for a municipal well at the Sun Peak picnic area, Rice says that Hulen Meadows residents are concerned that their own private well will be converged upon if the city elects to build one nearby.

      “We can’t get the city to sign an agreement that protects our water resources,” Rice said.

     With the environmental assessment “almost complete,” according to Smith, the next step in this lengthy process is the City Council making decisions regarding the revised recreation and pond plans.

     And what is the collective fear of Hulen Meadows residents, should the disputed structures become a reality?

     “Ruination of wildlife habitat and the peaceful habitat that people love,” Rice said.

     However, both Smith and Boettger believe the project can actually enhance native wildlife and habitats, working with the federal government and other stakeholders.

     But, as fundraising efforts and negotiations with the BLM continue, the project doesn’t appear to be on a fast track for completion.

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