Town, Methow Trails work on getting easements
Searching through the town’s archives, Winthrop Mayor Sally Ranzau found the first reference to the idea of a RiverWalk in 1987.
People have been talking — arguing, to some extent — about the proposal ever since. Ranzau figures it’s time to do something about it.
At last week’s Town Council meeting, Ranzau pledged that she will make completion of RiverWalk a top priority.
RiverWalk is the designation for a walking trail that would follow the banks of the Chewuch and Methow Rivers in Winthrop, from the pedestrian bridge to North Village down to the Spring Creek bridge, including an underpass beneath the Chewuch River bridge. Much of it would be on the back side of commercial buildings that front on Riverside Avenue.
For more than 30 years, a major roadblock — or trailblock, if you will — to the project has been dealing with concerns raised by the owners of Riverside Avenue property whose parcels would be crossed by the path.
Those concerns range from whether the backs of their buildings would have to meet the town’s Westernization requirements, to loss of parking to ongoing maintenance to questioning the need. At times, property owners have complained that the town doesn’t communicate with them (although all the documents related to the project are readily available to anyone for the asking).
A “Winthrop RiverWalk Newsletter, January 2020,” published by the town, attempts to summarize where things are — which is farther than some might think.
Letters of intent
In hopes of moving the project forward with property owners’ full knowledge and participation, the town has developed a “letter of intent for RiverWalk easement.” The town is working in concert with Methow Trails to obtain easements for the trail. “Easements may be conveyed to Methow Trails with the intent of being transferred to the Town of Winthrop for construction, ongoing maintenance and all future obligations associated with the trail,” according to the town’s information.
By agreeing to terms of the letter, property owners will allow the Town to have access for surveying and planning the trail’s route.
Some highlights of the RiverWalk Newsletter:
• The vision is to build a pedestrian trail (wheelchairs allowed, but not bikes) that would be maintained year-round. It is envisioned as 6-foot-wide, compact gravel surface except where it passes under the Chewuch River bridge, where it will be concrete. There will be retaining walls and fences where needed or requested by property owners. The town will own and maintain the trail.
• The town has been working on Phase I, extending from the kiosk behind the Farmer’s Exchange Building to the parking lot behind the Winthrop Emporium.
Designing Phase I — which required numerous local, state and federal regulatory permits — is nearly complete, and is funded by a state Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) grant plus federal transportation monies. The town needs easements to put the project out for bid, and may have to repay some of the grant money if Phase I isn’t completed in a timely fashion.
• The Town Council last year adopted a revised Westernization code that includes provisions for the back sides of Riverside Avenue buildings.
• Phase II will be from the kiosk behind the Farmer’s Exchange Building to Spring Creek Bridge. The town will seek another RCO grant to support the project. Phase III would extend upriver on the Chewuch River from the back of the Emporium to the pedestrian bridge to North Village.
At last week’s council meeting, Ranzau reported that three of 22 affected property owners have signed the letter of intent (several other historical easements are already in place). She said that over the years, community surveys have shown consistent support for the RiverWalk project. A town survey conducted in 2018 indicated 97% approval, the mayor said.
“I feel that the town and community really want the trail,” Ranzau said. “We need to work with the property owners to get the trail built in a reasonable amount of time … We want the property owners to be excited about it.”
“We’ve had a lot of blunders in the past,” Ranzau said. “We’re not assigning blame. The purpose is to move forward, and the letters of intent are an important step.”
As to lack of awareness on property owners’ part, Ranzau noted that “every single landowner has signed a form acknowledging that they know the town is applying for an RCO grant. … there have been numerous points of contact.”
Ranzau said the trail would give visitors more reasons to stay in town and explore.
“Enhancing the visiting experience is the goal,” council member Ben Nelson agreed. But he said the project “needs a champion.”
Ranzau said that will be her.
“I am taking this on,” she said. “I want to see it get done. We’re going to make it happen.”
Frequently asked questions
• Why build RiverWalk?
To let everyone enjoy the river side of town; give visitors a reason to stay longer; to create river-facing business opportunities; and to connect with other trails including the Susie Stephens Trail and the Methow Trails system.
• Why did design proceed before easements were obtained?
To take advantage of grant funding available for design and engineering, and because some property owners want to see a design before agreeing to an easement.
• Whose trail will it be?
The Town of Winthrop will own and be responsible for the trail.
• What ensures that the trail will be maintained?
To receive state funding, the town signed a contract that requirements keeping the trail open and maintained.
• Why not build the trail closer to the river? Why is it [planned] up near the top of the river bank?
To keep it above flood waters; lessen the cost of construction; to make access to businesses easier; and to avoid shoreline permitting issues.
• Why give easements to Methow Trails rather than directly to the town?”
Simplicity and efficiency. Methow Trails can accept and hold the easements, then transfer them to the town as needed. Methow Trails has 40 years of experience establishing positive relationships with landowners and developing workable easements.
Adapted from RiverWalk Project Update, produced by the Town of Winthrop.