Whitefish Council Directs Staff to Apply for Permit to Connect Section of Whitefish River Trail

The area in question was given to the city through an easement in 1983 and once held a boardwalk that fell into disrepair and disuse

By Mike Kordenbrock
Whitefish, Whitefish Lake and the Whitefish River on Sept. 24, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Whitefish City Council voted unanimously at its May 6 meeting to direct its staff to go forward with submitting a permit application to the state for approval of plans for installing decking along a portion of the Whitefish River Trail the city secured through an easement in the 1980s, but that fell into disrepair.

The trail section the city is looking to improve is in the Riverbend Trail and Miles Avenue area north of Kay Beller Park, which ends with a set of stairs, and an unmarked crossing of Highway 93 at the Senior Center and Miles Avenue. As Whitefish Public Works Director Craig Workman explained, a previously existing boardwalk deteriorated to the point that it was deconstructed, and the existence of the easement was forgotten.

A city report describes the area for which the permit, a Stream Protection Act 124 permit would apply, as extending from the north edge of the Montana Department of Transportation-built underpass to the BNSF Loop Trail, including a section of trail adjacent to the Riverbend Condominiums and a section of the trail adjacent to the completed condominiums at 28 Miles Avenue.

SPA 124 permit applications are reviewed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which has up to 30 days to review the application, perform an on-site investigation, and approve, modify or deny an application. The application is required for projects that may affect the beds or banks of any stream in Montana, including construction of new facilities, or the modification, operation or maintenance of an existing facility.

Dozens of people showed up at the council meeting to voice their support for the project, which has been progressing slowly for years. Workman said that over the last 10 years or so, the city has presented trail options to the Riverbend Homeowners Association, but that none were met with approval. In September of 2022, the city council unanimously voted to move forward with a design for the section that would include construction of an elevated path.

Workman said that, simply put, the soil along this area is not good, and so there will need to be helical piers, a foundation support material reminiscent of giant screws, put into the ground below the decking to a depth of between 70 and 100 feet in order to support the structure. The staff reported submitted ahead of the council meeting describes a geotechnical assessment finding subsurface soil conditions consisting of layered lean clay, silt and sand.

Upon review of four different potential structure types for the decking, city staff settled on a design using steel stringers with precast concrete decking, at an estimated cost of $241,000, and a life expectancy of 75 years for the deck and supporting structure.

City staff further estimates that construction costs for this section of trail will range between $1.5 million and $2 million. Funding for the project will come from future budgets through a combination of general funds, paved trail impact fees, resort tax dollars, and a $200,000 contribution from the developer with buildings along the Miles Avenue section of the project.

John Wilson, who worked as a carpenter and helped build the walkway and condominiums along the area in question, before eventually spending 18 years as the city’s public works director, told the council that at the time when the area was being developed they used to joke that it was a boardwalk to nowhere. Now, Wilson said, it’s a critical link of the trail.

“As my kids were growing up  I remember standing on the bridge and describing the trail to them and telling them that was going to go in. They asked ‘Oh great, when can we ride that trail?’ I said well I think you might be out of school by then. They’re in their 30s now,” he said.

Multiple people who use wheelchairs were among those who urged the city to approve the submission of the permit application. Austin Reese told the council that he’s married with two daughters, and that he has limited places he can spend time with them outdoors without the assistance of expensive adaptive equipment. Reese shared his appreciation with the city for their efforts on this, and encouraged them to move forward with it.

“To continue the path and connect it behind the Riverbend condos is long overdue. I think the crossing from 93 North onto Miles Avenue is dangerous, and for people in my situation, and anybody who uses adaptive equipment or mobility devices, it’s unsafe and not a plausible solution.”

Also addressing the council was Julie Tickle, the executive director of the Whitefish-based nonprofit DREAM Adaptive Recreation, which looks to provide year round outdoor recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. Tickle also serves as a committee member for Safe Trails Whitefish, a group dedicated to completing a connected multi-use trail and path system for everyone. As Diane Conradi of Safe Trails Whitefish told the council, about 400 people signed a petition in support of connecting this section.

As Tickle explained, underscoring the importance of having universally designed outdoor spaces in a community, is the fact that one in four adults has a disability in the United States, and 12% have a disability that impacts mobility. Tickle noted that any person at any time could join the disabled community, and that the “inaccessibility cycle” shows that when there are barriers for the disabled community to access places and services, they cannot participate, and thus aren’t seen in public, which makes their population either not thought about, or seen as an outlier.

She also further emphasized the danger of the 93 North-Miles Avenue crossing, and encouraged the council and city staff to act with urgency on this and other sections lacking connectivity and universal design principles.

Ahead of the council vote, Councilor Frank Sweeney urged supporters of the project to remain committed as the process continues.

“You guys have all recognized the staff work that’s gone into this. I think you have all recognized there is nothing we have worked on maybe harder in terms of our trail system than this section,” Sweeney said. “We will not let up until we get this done. We will need all of your voices in our work with FWP and DNRC to get this thing completed. So don’t quit on us now, don’t think your work is done. We will need your help, we will need your voices.”

[email protected]