Public Hearing on Trail Project to be Held Tonight

It’s been years in the making, and the Lowell Area Recreation Authority (LARA) thinks it has finally settled on how to connect two sections of a 125-mile regional rail trail.

Now, the group is ready to move on to the fundraising phase of the $4.9 million project. That means grant applications will be submitted to the Michigan Department of Transportation, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and private groups.

But not everyone is pleased with the proposed trail route. Some homeowners worry about the trail encroaching on their private property and resulting in the removal of trees and landscaping. A public hearing will be held during the 7pm Lowell City Council meeting tonight for both sides to share their thoughts, hopes and concerns about the trail project.

Project Will Complete a 125-Mile Rail Trail

The Fred Meijer River Valley Rail Trail was created thanks to the generous support of the late retail magnate of the same name. It’s part of the Fred Meijer Mid West Michigan Trail Network which runs from Owosso to Alma. Of its 125-mile stretch, only four miles does not have a designated trail.

Those four miles are in Lowell.

“It is the only gap,” says Dave Austin, a civil engineer with the Grand Rapids firm William & Works. Austin, who is also a 25-year Lowell resident, has worked as a consultant to the City of Lowell and LARA for years.

During that time, LARA completed the first phase of the Lowell Area Trailway which includes a path from the high school to Alden Nash, down to Gee Drive and over to Foreman by Cherry Creek Elementary. Another phase is now underway to finish running the trail on Alden Nash down to Lowell Township’s new park which is in development behind Walgreens.

The latest project for LARA has been a plan to connect two sections of the Fred Meijer River Valley Rail Trail. One section ends just south of the Division Street bridge over the Grand River. The second ends on Foreman just east of Cherry Creek Elementary School.

“I did a study in 2015 that looked at many, many, many alternatives for how to get from A to B,” Austin says. He and LARA think the best alternative is to run through Moose Park, which runs alongside Division, over the Grand River, through Recreation Park (aka the fairgrounds) and along Bowes Road. Then, the trail could connect with the Lowell Area Trailway to get to Foreman.

Other Options Considered but Not Chosen

Another option for the route included bringing the trail up to Main Street. However, that was dismissed because of limited space between downtown businesses and the roadway. Plus, the noise and aesthetics of that route were less desirable than the Bowes Road route that will allow LARA to take the trail past Stoney Lakeside Park and along the Grand River.

However, to ensure trail hikers and bikers can easily make their way to downtown, a trail spur will be added, bringing a path north to Front Street.

The group also considered running the trail along Grand River Ave. to the Grand River Riverfront Park in Lowell Township. The trail could then be taken north across the river to connect to the Lowell Area Trailway.

However, it was decided this route wouldn’t fare as well in terms of funding. “We would score very poorly in the grant because there are no recreational opportunities,” Austin says. While the city route would take people along the rivers, through wooded areas, past Stoney Lakeside Park and near the downtown, a Grand River Ave. route would have walkers and bikers alongside the road instead.

Residents Concerned About Losing Property, Privacy

Not everyone likes LARA’s plan though. Two residents stood up at the last city council meeting share their displeasure about the idea of putting a trail in front of their Bowes Road homes.

In order to qualify for some grant money, a 10-foot trail would need to replace existing sidewalks. That would mean residents would lose some of their front yard space and as well as landscaping and trees that run alongside the sidewalk. Plus, there is a concern from some about increased foot and bike traffic in front of their homes.

For residents along the proposed route, the biggest question seems to be why existing sidewalks can’t be used. Austin says the reason is safety. Since bikes are not allowed on sidewalks, families riding along the trail route would need to use the road. “Now you’re going to put your five-year old on the street,” Austin says.

A secondary reason is that many private organizations which fund trails require a wider path that can accommodate both pedestrians and bikers. A plan that puts walkers on an existing sidewalk and bikers on the road may be less likely to receive funding. “We are trying to fund this outside the community,” Austin says, which makes it important to appeal to private groups.

LARA Goal: Get the Process Started

Austin is sympathetic to the concerns of Bowes Road residents but also optimistic that a win-win solution can be found. He notes that on other trail segments, homeowners have been assisted with new landscaping, fencing and other accommodations to lessen any impact from the trail.

However, the question of whether easements will be signed and accommodations made doesn’t need to be answered right now. At this point, LARA is simply looking to the get the grant application process started.

Getting the ok to apply for grants doesn’t mean the trail is a done deal. If homeowners refuse to sign easements for the tail, that means the project ends. “The city and LARA have no intention of trying to force this trail on anyone,” Austin says. “All we’ve asked is, let’s get the grant submitted.”

Lowell City Council will hold a public hearing tonight, March 5, during their 7pm meeting at City Hall. Those who wish to learn more or who would like to address the city council on the matter, can do so at that time.

For more information on the project, LARA has put together a document to answer frequently asked questions.  You can also sign up to receive updates on the project by visiting the Lowell Area Trailway website. LARA is also soliciting public comments and questions, and those can be submitted using this online form.

This article has been updated to include links to the LARA website, FAQs document and online feedback form.

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