P&Z hears $12M Pathways plan tonight: Is your yard about to become a trail?

The Bellaire Planning and Zoning Commission will consider the controversial $12 million Community Pathways Plan tonight (July 12) at 6:30 at a meeting in the Council Chambers of City Hall, 7008 S. Rice Ave. Those meetings are live-streamed on the city website at bellairetx.gov.

It’s not the first appearance of the plan, which would create a network of 6- to 8-foot trails and paths throughout the city, gobbling up front and side yards in the process. It’s listed on the agenda in the category of “unfinished business, communications and reports” and as a possible action item.

When the city sought feedback through a survey, slightly more than 400 residents (out of a population of more than 17,000) commented, with a majority of those rating existing pathways as excellent, good or average.

Some residents in the path of the project have expressed concerns about the losing their yards, while in post-Harvey Bellaire, others have questioned both the expenditure — which would likely require a bond election — and covering more permeable surface throughout the city.

Here is the column by Bellaire Essentials’ City Hall Watchdog Jane McNeel about the plan, which appears in the July edition of the magazine:

The McNeel Report: Is Bellaire mobility going down the right path(ways)?

By Jane McNeel

One of the items on the agenda for the June meeting of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, “Discussion and possible action regarding the Community Pathways Project,” signaled that the mobility plan which carries a potential $12 million-plus price tag over its life — which had gotten off to a bumpy start and been put on temporary hold — was on the move through city government channels again.

First, there was the matter-of-fact reminder by engineer Ayo Bello with contractor HR Green that the Pathways plan was developed based on a city survey. Be aware that less than 3 percent of residents actually commented on the plan — 430 out of more than 17,000. (Shamefully low participation rates in these surveys and why we’re getting the government we deserve through our indifference is a subject for another day.)

Since apparently this plan isn’t on most residents’ radar, let us remind you that it is designed to connect walkers, bicyclists and joggers to schools, parks, businesses, mass transit, and presumably a healthier lifestyle — as well link Bellaire to existing paths and trails outside the city.

The city’s special projects manager, Cristin Emshoff, joined Bello to present the details of the new plan in hopes of gaining the parks board’s blessing. After a PowerPoint presentation they explained that no pathway would be on private land, all would be built on public right-of-way (ROW).

That sounded good – at first.

Members of the board pressed the right-of-way issue. Most city streets have a 60-foot ROW but are actually much more narrow. As an example, mine is 26 feet curb-to-curb — the rest of the ROW is covered by my front yard and that of my neighbor across the street. That how it has been since most Bellaire streets and subdivisions were laid out.

As a result, a portion of many residential front or side yards would be used for the Pathways project. A 6- or 8-foot pathway would run through someone’s front or side yard. Trees, plantings and other landscaped areas would be affected. When first unveiled, Southdale residents sounded the alarm about Baldwin Avenue, which has only a 50-foot ROW, and succeeded in having it removed from the plan.

The statement that Evergreen, which is almost exclusively lined with homes, is not a residential street created some consternation. For planning purposes, the east-west streets that cross Loop 610 are considered priority pathways and connectors and not treated as residential streets. Fournace and Evergreen would receive an 8-foot pathway, as would South Rice Avenue. Bellaire Boulevard and Bissonnet Street seem to be a lower priority in the plan, and other designated streets would receive 6-foot pathways.

Members of the board began to question the wisdom of the plan at this time, suggesting that flooding and drainage should be addressed, not pathways, and suggested that only 2.7 percent of the population wasn’t a serious survey response. They also expressed concern that the planners were trying to turn Bellaire into a planned community — and that’s not what we are.

Bello and Emshoff had an array of alternatives at the ready — narrow Evergreen and add a side lane, realign streets to allow for the pathways and shared bike lanes, widen existing sidewalks, and more. They said that the plan would not be rolled out all at once, that it would be implemented as streets are reconstructed.

And although it’s called “Community Pathways Plan” on every official document describing it, they assured board members that it’s a “framework,”not a plan.

Even though these projects are described as exploratory and still needing approval, that neighborhood meetings will be held and residents’ input incorporated, there are very strong indications of what Bellaire leaders are looking to do. Then once the plan is approved the questions of funding arise. Do leaders throw it into the next bond issue, raise more debt?

And if only a fraction of residents chose to voice their views, why is the Community Pathways Plan such a high priority? Additionally, a clear majority — 60 percent — of the respondents rated the “quality of existing pathways” as excellent, good or average.

The Newcastle walking trail was mentioned as an example of what can be done along a thoroughfare, but the presenters did not understand its history and how it was perfectly suited for a path.

The Newcastle trail was originally a very wide, very deep ditch that ran along the west side of the street. When I moved to Bellaire in the 1950s the street was called Avenue A and later changed to Newcastle. There were wooden bridges across the ditch at intersecting streets heading west and for access to any homes along that side that faced Newcastle.

The ditch eventually was converted to a storm sewer under longtime City Manager Gary Summers, and — since we lived under a pay-as-you-go philosophy of funding infrastructure improvements back then — was paid for by city of Bellaire funds, Harris County funds and private funds from local businesses.

Once the new storm sewer was installed and the bridges were no longer required, a wide swath of city land was available, and an asphalt path was installed, which later became today’s walking path. The street was never moved or realigned, though it was eventually repaved.

Back to today and the real world, where we leave it to future taxpayers to pay for today’s improvements. The estimated cost for the Community Pathways project was not addressed at the Parks Board meeting; however the board was told the project would not be paid from the 2016 Bonds for a Better Bellaire, with the last chunk of that money earmarked for sidewalks.

An appendix entitled Opinion of Probable Construction Cost estimates creating the network of pathways would cost a staggering $12,157,500 in 2018 dollars (see table). About $125,000 has been spent so far, through March 31 of this year.

After a thorough question-and-answer session and a deeper understanding of what was being proposed the board chose to postpone a motion to approve. Members felt there were too many questions to be asked and answered and too many tangents to be considered and the suggestion was that this might be presented to all the boards and commissions.

That provides a chance for you to do your homework (links to all current documents are on my website), see how you might be impacted, and make your voice heard in these formative stages.

Watchdog alert: As of press deadline, the plan was scheduled to be presented to the Planning & Zoning Commission on July 12 and to City Council on July 16. Heed the mayor’s advice (page XX), and track this project through both bodies.

Jane McNeel has lived in Bellaire for more than 60 years. She operates a website, www.BellaireCivicClub.com, to simplify access to important documents, issues and events in the city, and may be contacted at BellaireBCC@gmail.com