Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | May 29, 2007

Public access to public trails on public land

To hear many Jackson Oaks residents talk, public trails would make the perfect setting for Stephen King’s next novel. Based on their comments at last week’s Morgan Hill Bicycle and Trails Advisory Committee meeting, trails are rife with fire bugs, litter bugs, careless smokers, vandals, burglars, sex offenders, drunk and amorous teenagers, drug users, homeless people, peeping Toms, and reckless bikers running over hapless pedestrians trying to escape vicious animal attacks.

BTAC member Christopher Hauge sagely observed, “If I take all of [Jackson Oaks residents’] arguments at face value, we shouldn’t have trails anywhere.”

At least Jackson Oaks trails opponents haven’t yet mentioned terrorists or WMD as they campaign to have trails near their neighborhood removed from the city’s Trails and Natural Resources Study.

Yes, bad things can happen on trails. Bad things can happen anywhere: schools, churches, bathtubs, campgrounds, automobiles, offices, parks, and on and on.

Yet, we don’t remove these things from our lives. Instead, we find ways to reasonably balance risks and benefits to lead productive, enjoyable lives.

The same approach is appropriate for the trails study.

The project is in the first of three stages, Public Works Director Jim Ashcraft explained at the meeting that was attended by more than 100 people. The vast majority were Jackson Oaks residents opposing trails near their neighborhood.

After the current study is done, a master plan will be adopted in 2008, then implemented. Most trails are planned for public lands, Ashcraft said, and those that include private lands will only be built with landowner cooperation.

Ashcraft announced – to enthusiastic applause – that city staff now recommends removing the Jackson Oaks trails from the study.

Later, pro-trails speaker Robb Jankura seemed resigned to losing the Jackson Oaks trails battle, but pleaded that the Jackson Oaks residents’ arguments not be allowed to set precedent for the entire trails project.

I suspect that it’s too late: A neighbor of the proposed El Toro trail echoed Jackson Oaks residents’ fears and declared his neighbors’ firm opposition to trails near their homes.

When you clear the fog of alarmist concerns about the Jackson Oaks trails proposal, two issues remain: fire and traffic.

If Jackson Oaks is a safe enough place to live – and it must be, because it has 503 homes containing potential fire starters like lawn mowers, fireplaces, grills, cigarette, cigar and pipe smokers, and motorized vehicles – then it must be a safe enough place to walk and ride bikes.

As pro-trails Jackson Oaks resident Tom Nowitzky said, “If I was as in fear of fire as many of my good neighbors, I wouldn’t live in Jackson Oaks.”

That leaves traffic. Traffic studies can reliably estimate trail trip generation and concomitant parking needs. But if the Jackson Oaks trails are removed from the study process, those issues won’t be addressed.

Just four brave people addressed the BTAC committee to support the Jackson Oaks trails at last week’s meeting. One endured shouted heckling as he left the podium. Hauge, who criticized anti-trail arguments and endorsed keeping the Jackson Oaks trails in the study, was repeatedly drowned out by jeering.

The Jackson Oaks homeowners who oppose these trails are vocal and well organized, as is their right. But they do not represent the entire Morgan Hill community or even the entire Jackson Oaks subdivision.

Their efforts are making it politically difficult for city officials to put trails on public land near Jackson Oaks. Another neighborhood now opposes a different trail citing the same fears that Jackson Oaks trails opponents repeat ad nauseum.

Let’s not allow them to bully trails proponents into silence. Public lands are subsidized by the taxes of all Morgan Hill residents, not just Jackson Oaks residents.

City staff has already capitulated to the anti-trail Jackson Oaks residents. Will staff recommend that the El Toro trail be pulled from the study next? Will committee, commission and council members agree?

If you support trails, or public access to publicly owned open spaces, or reasonable decisions based on logic instead of fear, speak up. It’s the only way to make it politically easier for city officials – appointed committee members and commissioners and elected City Council members – to support trails near Jackson Oaks, El Toro, and the entire city.

Speak at a meeting, talk to neighbors and city officials, write letters to the editor. Make sure officials and all community members hear from both sides.

If trails supporters are silent, fear mongering will win and the entire community will lose access to these public lands.

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