Lack of easements thwarts Winthrop rec trail plan
Frustration over lack of progress on the long-imagined RiverWalk trail boiled over at last week’s Winthrop Town Council meeting, raising the question of whether the project will go dormant.
For several years, the town has devoted time and resources to a plan to extend a pedestrian walkway following the banks of the Chewuch and Methow rivers, from the Sa Teekh Wa bridge downstream to the Spring Creek Bridge, including an underpass beneath the north end of the Chewuch River Bridge at the four-way stop. Much of the trail would be on the back side of commercial buildings that front on Riverside Avenue.
The main roadblock to completing the trail 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 for such a path.
For those reasons, despite its ongoing efforts the town has been unable to get easement agreements from all the affected property owners.
In 2020, the town developed a “letter of intent for RiverWalk easement” and began working in concert with Methow Trails to obtain easements for the trail. By agreeing to terms of the letter, property owners will allow the town to have access for surveying and planning the trail’s route.
Mayor Sally Ranzau reported in early 2020 that 14 of 22 affected property owners had signed letters of intent. But at a council meeting in October 2021, Ranzau said there were still several holdouts.
At last week’s meeting, council members engaged in a discussion of the RiverWalk project, related to the requirement that the town get construction of the pedestrian underpass going this year. Some despaired of making any more headway with property owners who don’t want to participate, and questioned whether further efforts will make any difference.
Council member William Kilby said he favored moving forward with the underpass portion of the project. But council member Bill McAdow said his discussions over the past several years with downtown business owners had led him to believe that “it doesn’t sound like it [RiverWalk] is going to get support.”
Council member Joseph O’Driscoll was more blunt.
“It’s just done,” he said of the project, based on similar conversations he’s had with property owners. “I don’t see any way of it going forward.”
O’Driscoll said the town continues to face the same issues that have been raised for years. “It would be awesome,” he said of the project, but business owners aren’t supporting it across the board. He said a common sentiment is “either proceed or drop it.”
Ranzau wondered if it would be feasible to complete the underpass, which could leave the door open for future extension of the trail. She also suggested prioritizing the northern portion of the trail, towards North Village along the Chewuch River, where some property owners have indicated support for RiverWalk. “There are some easements in place already,” she said.
New meeting time
Beginning with its April 6 meeting, the Winthrop Town Council will revert to a 7 p.m. meeting time as it typically does for the summer and fall months. Meetings will be in-person on the first and third Wednesday of each month in the Hen House meeting room at the Winthrop Barn, and will also continue to be accessible online via the Zoom platform. Visit townofwinthrop.com for more information.
Phase I, which includes the underpass, required numerous local, state and federal regulatory permits, and is funded by a state Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) grant plus federal transportation monies. Phase II would be from the kiosk behind the Farmer’s Exchange Building to Spring Creek Bridge. Phase III would extend upriver on the Chewuch River from the back of the Emporium to Sa Teekh Wah bridge.
The town may have to repay some of the grant money if Phase I isn’t completed in a timely fashion. Town Planner Rocklynn Culp said the town probably can’t alter the scope or purpose of that project now without being required to give back the grant funds that have already been spent on preliminary work. She estimated that total at about $200,000.
As far as the underpass goes, she said, “we need to fish or cut bait right now” or possibly face paying back that money.
Ranzau worried that if the town were turn return grant funds, it would negatively affect Winthrop’s chances to win similar grants in the future.
McAdow lamented that building the underpass, and nothing else, could be viewed as “typical government insanity … lose money by building a project to nowhere.”
Council members agreed to continue the discussion at a future meeting, when they have better information on all the numbers associated with the project and the consequences of whatever action the town decides to take. But absent better news than they’ve heard in years, council members will likely have few good options for advancing the project.
“I’m done with this for now,” O’Driscoll reiterated. “I don’t want to waste money on it anymore.”
In other business the council:
- Learned that interviews of candidates for the position of Winthrop Barn manager will begin soon. Since the town took over management of the Barn from the Winthrop Auditorium Association, town staff have been handling bookings at the facility until a permanent manager can be hired.
- Informally discussed whether nonprofit organizations should be allowed to use the entire Barn, or meetings room at the Barn, for no charge or at reduced rates. The topic will be further discussed at a future council meeting.