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Sonoma Valley bike trail closes in on its goal

Some 25 bicyclists gathered in Fetters Hot Springs the evening of May 12 to begin a “Ride of Silence” near two sites recognizing the fatal collisions where David Davison and Adrian Albert were killed in 2019 and 2020, respectively - each site marked by a “ghost bike,” painted white.

In both of those cases, the fatalities occurred to some measure because the cyclists were riding unprotected on Highway 12, with only a thin stripe of paint separating them from vehicular traffic.

The gathering was one of three that night in the county, organized by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition to bring attention to the risks cyclists face on the roads. The other two, in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, also had strong turnouts, but for coalition director Eris Weaver the positive response came with a catch: after a relatively incident-free spring, on May 12 an intoxicated driver sideswiped two bicyclists traveling separately near Sebastopol, and one of them later died.

Mark Osborne, 52, of Santa Rosa, was an Australian-born enologist at the Gary Farrell Winery in Healdsburg. But he lost his life – despite being a competitive mountain biker and marathoner, he was no match for a drunk driver in a pickup.

Weaver was straightforward in her description of the fatality, calling it “a horrific incident of vehicular violence.” Among Weaver’s anguished questions: “When will we decide that engineering our built environment to protect our most vulnerable users – pedestrians and cyclists – is more important than enabling drivers to get places as fast as possible?”

It's a sentiment shared by Logan Harvey, who stepped down from his term as Mayor of Sonoma on June 7 in order to take a job in Washington state. He led the Sonoma Ride of Silence, and if anything it re-enforced his commitment to bicycle safety.

“There’s no way to ride from Sonoma to Santa Rosa, even Sonoma to Glen Ellen in a safe way – it’s awful,” he said. “Sonoma should be a bike mecca. There just isn’t safe biking infrastructure in this town.”

That biking infrastructure is split between two jurisdictions, the City of Sonoma and the County of Sonoma. While the city has the Sonoma City Trail, a nicely-paved 1.5 mile pedestrian-bike path cutting across town from Sonoma Highway to Fourth Street East, the county has long promised an ambitious Sonoma Valley Trail to connect Santa Rosa to Sonoma – as well as plans for bike trails east of Sonoma, down Eighth Street East to Highway 121, and on to Napa County.

The county’s main bike project in the 1st District – which includes Sonoma Valley and Schellville – the Sonoma Valley Trail has been in the study stage since as far back as 2001, according to the Sonoma County Regional Parks Planning Director Steve Ehret. A feasibility study was finally released in 2016 after the county’s second appeal for a Caltrans planning grant to complete the study was accepted in 2013. The study mapped out a preferred route of a 13-mile paved trail from Los Alamos Road to Agua Caliente, generally following Highway 12 the entire way.

The Final Sonoma Valley Trail Feasibility Study recommended completing the paved trail in phases as public funding becomes available. Regional Parks is actively searching for funding opportunities to complete the 13-mile paved trail, according to the project website at sonomacounty.ca.gov/Parks/Planning/Sonoma-Valley-Trail.

“Since then (2016), we have been quietly working on acquisitions,” said Ehret. Pointing out that much of the route follows Highway 12, he said, “Some of the land is within Caltrans jurisdiction, some on the edge of Caltrans and private property, or along utility easements.” While he said they have two engineering teams working on the trail alignment and finalizing easements, no actual physical work has begun on the Sonoma Valley Trail to this point.

“Acquisition takes the longest – once you have the land, you can build it,” said Ehret.

Much of the route has been negotiated, said Ehret, despite the challenges faced by a multiplicity of landowners and agencies.

“Private property interests are generally afraid of trails – they’re afraid the government is going to condemn their land, which we rarely do,” said Ehret. So locking down all easements is the course he’s following, one reason being if the entire project is “shovel-ready” with all rights negotiated and clear, access to federal funds will be quicker and more certain.

But that approach runs counter to that favored by 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, in whose district the project is entirely located. She would like to see work begin on the sections for which easement rights have already been secured. “It is challenging for me to understand how we might acquire the right-of-way, design the trail, acquire funds, and bid the entire project over the next few years,” said Gorin. “I would prefer a piecemeal approach starting with the easiest sections (and perhaps the most dangerous sections) initially and loop out onto the highway (and across bridges) if necessary.”

In the Springs it would connect with a related project, the Central Sonoma Valley Trail, a 2.74 mile combination of dedicated bike trail and marked bike-friendly side streets, a project that is more or less complete at this time. By linking with the Sonoma Bike Trail, it could conceivably hook up with the proposed Sonoma-Schellville Trail, a 3.6-mile route from city limits to Fremont Drive, generally following Eighth Street East using the railroad easements of the discontinued Union Pacific spur.

The result would make it possible, in theory at least, to cycle from Santa Rosa to Napa to connect with the ambitious Napa Valley Vine Trail from Vallejo to Calistoga, itself spanning a distance of 37 miles. A former Sonoma County chief of park planning, Philip Sales, has been the executive director of the Napa Valley Vine Trail since 2015. Sonoma bike trail advocates, including Supervisor Gorin as well as Ehret of Regional Parks, point to the Napa trail as a model, and an inspiration. “Sonoma Valley Trail is similar in scope and challenges, but they have access with more right-of-way to work with,” said Gorin.

Sales was quick to agree. “What I think has been really key to making it work over here is the landowner groups got behind the project early,” he told the Index-Tribune. “Easements and donations, often that’s where a lot of project die, you simply don’t have the flexibility to do things without them. We had to get 17 easements between St. Helena and Calistoga,” a driving distance of about 8.5 miles.

Easements are a right to cross or otherwise use someone else's land for a specified purpose, and the easiest easements to get are usually railroad right-of ways. That’s how the Sonoma City Trail got built, along the easement of the discontinued Union Pacific railway; that’s also why the Napa Valley Vine Trail is proceeding as quickly as it is. (Sales is admittedly optimistic when he says the trail can be finished in the 2025-26 range – “but we have to adjust,” he said.)

But the railroad through Sonoma Valley to Santa Rosa has long since been removed, and much of it has passed into the hands of landowners – and therein lies the rub, securing easement rights or negotiating land purchases to make the trail happen. It’s a situation that Logan Harvey finds troubling.

“We have a problem in this country, individualism over community, and I don’t know how we solve that,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just about benefiting your community.” And he would not rule out eventually turning to eminent domain, expropriating private property for public use, albeit with payment of compensation. “That’s just going to have to happen,” he said.

“Because this other process is taking too long, and people are dying.”

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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