Cyclists, hikers, begin delicate dance over trails access in Issaquah Highlands conservation easement

Hiking trails advocates and mountain bike enthusiasts left Monday night's Issaquah Major Planning and Growth Committee (MPGC) meeting satisfied that there would be consideration given to both uses in trails plans for a 43 acre section of land south-west of Central Park in the Issaquah Highlands.

Hiking trails advocates and mountain bike enthusiasts left Monday night’s Issaquah Major Planning and Growth Committee (MPGC) meeting satisfied that there would be consideration given to both uses in trails plans for a 43 acre section of land south-west of Central Park in the Issaquah Highlands.

The site, known as the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Conservation Easement, is being set aside as public open space as part of the Issaquah Highlands/Park Pointe Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) Agreement. That the property will be kept free from development and made available for passive recreation is a done deal. What remains to be negotiated is what sort of trails will be constructed on the property, where they will go and who they will be for.

At least one key question about the future of the site – who would own and maintain it? – appears to have been laid to rest Monday night with King County Parks staff indicating their director was willing to “take the 43 acres and add it to Grand Ridge Park, if that was the city’s preference.”

Although the City of Issaquah would be responsible for the development of trails there, including a likely paved section west to east connecting NE Park Drive with a proposed mountain bike skills course on the western edge of Central Park, the county would bear the cost and operation of maintenance. The county owns and maintains Grand Ridge Park immediately to the south-east.

There is the potential that the interests of bikers and hikers may come into direct conflict. Some hikers vehemently oppose opening natural areas to mountain bikes, concerned that they damage fragile ecosystems and are a public safety hazard.

The Issaquah Alps Trails Club is a crucial advocate of land conservation and the promotion of Issaquah as an area famed for its natural resources. It is also a group well-connected to city politics, and it is understood a number of trails club members recently expressed concerns to city administration about the establishment of an Issaquah Mountain Biking Taskforce.

Mountain bikers on the other hand insist they are not lobbying for access to sensitive areas or to challenge the rights of hikers, only that mountain-biking options be provided to at least partially address the strong interest in the sport locally, the growth of which outstrips that of almost all other recreational activities.

At Monday evening’s meeting, long time Issaquah Alps Trails Club member, and former city councilor, Dave Kappler, suggested revisions to the city’s current trails plan working draft for the site, but offered a clear sign of user-cooperation by indicating at least some of the trails would be multi-use. He said that if Bellevue College ended up developing the parcel north of the conservation easement, there could be an opportunity to have them build and maintain any trails, for use by students and the general public.

Kappler expressed a familiar concern regarding a plan to connect trails in the conservation easement and the proposed mountain bike skills course with the regional Grand Ridge and High Point trailheads. Some Issaquah residents have suggested that by connecting the Highlands with Duthie Hill, the parking problems at Duthie Hill would overflow down the connector.

“If you want to go regional you better have parking,” Kappler said.

However Tony Cowan, a member of the newly formed Issaquah Bicycle Club and a key architect of the proposed skills park, said riders would not see Central Park as a viable alternative to parking at Duthie Hill.

“It’s 45 minutes each way, and it’s a hard ride,” he said. “The constraints on parking at Duthie Hill bear no relation to anything we’re trying to do at Central Park, and won’t do until these two properties are shifted closer together. In other words, it’s not going to happen. You’re not going to suddenly have people showing up at Central Park to go to Duthie Hill anymore than you usually do.”

Cowan said, as a regular rider of Highlands trails, he had only ever seen one or two cars parked at Central Park by riders heading to Duthie.

Meanwhile, King County Park District Maintenance Coordinator Gary Brown told the MPGC that a proposal to construct additional parking at Duthie Hill had recently received a good Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office grant score, increasing the possibility of more parking space at the popular facility.

Major Development Review Team Project Manager Keith Niven told the MPGC that equestrian groups had also indicated they would hope to have access to trails in the area, and would ask for a couple of parking spaces to accommodate horse trailers.

County Natural Lands Program Manager, Connie Blumen, told the MPGC that on King County property the designation “multi-use” includes access for horses.

The MPGC meeting, and a meeting of the Issaquah Parks Board later that evening, expressed little desire to develop more specific trails plans for the property before the WSDOT Conservation Easement agreement is signed and King County has agreed to take over ownership of the property in the near future.

“(The details) won’t hold us up,” MPGC Chair Maureen McCarry said.