While a parks connector project is in the initial discussion stage, the Montpelier Parks Commission heard both enthusiasm and concern about proposed improvements to a trail that connects Hubbard and North Branch parks. Attendance at the hearing was high for the Parks Commission, with a dozen people in the room and more than 20 participating via the ORCA Media livestream.
At the hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 16 at the North Branch Nature Center, the prospect of a trail that would provide a safe cross-town route for young bicyclists living in the neighborhoods on the west side of Hubbard Park was strongly supported by several parents. Jon Copans emphasized the potential connectivity such a trail could provide through Hubbard Park “rather than the gauntlet of downtown.”
Reservations about the envisioned trail included concern about the comparative speed of bikes, the possible interruption of the quiet sanctity people enjoy while walking trails in the park, and whether the cost of the improvements will impact already stressed taxpayers.
Responding to a flurry of comments about the project raising taxes recently posted on Front Porch Forum, Alec Elsworth, parks director, said the multi-use trail improvements, as planned, can be made with existing grant funds, of which $26,000 is in hand. The granting organization is the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Collaborative, he said. Ellsworth further noted that two recent expansions of the park’s property and the building of the North Branch trails were funded through grants and volunteer fundraising, not by Montpelier taxpayers.
Ellsworth said design standards for such trails include the mitigation of wet areas, the composition of the tread material, the grade of hills (between zero and 5%), and the width and overhead clearance of the trail, which would be used for walking and biking in the summer months and cross-country skiing and fat biking during the winter months.
Chloe Wexler, an experienced cyclist who commutes to work through downtown regularly, said she is much too aware of the danger anyone on a bicycle faces on city streets. “I’ve had so many close calls, almost getting ‘doored,’” she said, referring to the peril of drivers swinging their car door open after parking without looking carefully. “I wish it wasn’t so, but it happens all the time. I really support there being a way for folks to get around the downtown.”
Preserving the Character of Hubbard Park
Noting that when the mountain bike trails originally were proposed for North Branch Trail Initiative (NBTI), the concept was for multi-use trails, said Dayton Crites, current president of the Montpelier Area Mountain Bike Association. “I want to fully admit that we are aware in MAMBA that when North Branch was built, the assessment was for multi-use and what got built out there is highly developed for mountain biking … but that wasn’t the intention and that was a mistake that will not be repeated from what we’ve learned.”
Also, acknowledging the North Branch mistake, MAMBA member and former mayor John Hollar said, “This (proposed trail) is a way of making us a more bike-friendly city that doesn’t require a lot of tradeoffs and controversy in the community.”
Sue LaBarr, who lives near the Vermont College of Fine Arts campus, asked for clarification about what is meant by ‘bike friendly.’ “MAMBA means to me ‘crashing through the woods on your mountain bike,’” she said. “I’m 81 years old and ride my E-bike around town, but I’ve walked up these trails in the North Branch and I wouldn’t take my bike up there. I mean berms and jumps! I’m not going to take that up at this time in my life. Going out Route 12 is harrowing in either direction. Route 2 similarly. Are you envisioning these (proposed) trails as something I could do, or is it just for mountain bikers?”
Ellsworth replied that the grade of the climbs and the width of the proposed trail design would be much gentler and wider than the North Branch trails. Achieving the desired zero to 5% grade would double the current length of the Park Connector Trail from 0.41 miles to approximately 0.82 miles, he said.
Zach Porter, who lives on North Park Drive, supports the idea of connecting the west side of town. But he added, “I worry that the character of Hubbard Park will completely change if we’re not careful about how we go about making these connections happen, pointing to the “really quiet, contemplative, slow parts of Hubbard Park where solitude is amazingly easy to find — and that’s a beautiful thing.” Porter said the Commission’s goal should be connectivity, not a new web of trails through Hubbard Park.
While access to the outdoors both within and around the city is a major attraction for families living in Montpelier, Porter said, “This is a great place to ride in the hills around town, while our cityscape has suffered for lack of attention. A lot of kids and adults deal with the danger and frustration of riding on our city streets each and every day.”
The Parks Department has posted a pamphlet describing both the concept for the improved Parks Connector Trail and a timeline for developing the project, if and when approved. It can be found at montpelier-vt.org/DocumentCenter/View/10379/Parks-Commission-Presentation-01-16-24?bidId=