Tags: St. Louis County News
February 01, 2017 - A new paved trail proposed for Cliff Cave Park is on hold due to objections from neighbors that the trail expansion could accelerate the county park's existing safety issues.
Great Rivers Greenway hopes to build a 2-mile paved loop, similar to Grant's Trail, in Oakville. The path would wind up and down the bluffs from a trailhead on Cliff Cave Road and end at a pedestrian-only en-trance at Telegraph and Erb roads.
But legislation allowing the greenway district to use county land for the project has been delayed by 6th District County Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, since he took office last month.
After holding his first constituent meeting last week to hear residents' concerns about the trail expansion, Trakas said he will decide this week whether to advance the legislation.
At a Jan. 26 meeting at the Pavilion at Lemay attended by roughly 50 residents, Trakas gave no indication of whether he supports the project or not, but said he was interested in hearing from the neighbors.
"They wanted to introduce it, I said no dice, I wanted to hear from you," Trakas told attendees. "I have to move it, and that hasn't happened. It may not happen."
The project has a hard deadline of March 1 for construction this year due to the April-to-October nesting season for Indiana and gray bats, both endangered species that live in caves.
Great Rivers Greenway officials were unavailable for comment before press time.
Along the proposed $5 million paved loop, hikers would cross two pedestrian bridges, including one over Cliff Cave Road and one across a ravine, all leading to a scenic overlook on the Mississippi River bluffs with views to Kentucky on a clear day.
The 10-foot trail can be accessed through the pedestrian-only entrance at Telegraph and Erb or through a new second parking lot on Cliff Cave Road complete with new bathrooms.
The greenway district has adapted the plans over the last year based on resident feedback. The upper parking lot on Cliff Cave Road has been shifted as far away from the road as the topography will allow, and its landscaping buffer was increased.
In response to concerns from neighbors near the park strip at Telegraph and Erb, the greenway downsized the elaborate entrance planned on Telegraph so that it looks less like a main entrance. Nearby residents had been afraid people would drive to the park, find no parking and then park in the closest subdivisions.
After a packed open house on the project at Oakville High School in October, Great Rivers Greenway said that 53 percent of the written comments on the project were positive. Another 15 percent shared neutral feedback, and 32 percent said they would like at least one thing to change about the project.
But residents opposed to the Oakville trail passionately aired their grievances and directly criticized GRG Executive Director Susie Trautman, who led the open house.
"Our message is really about living life outside," Trautman said. "We want to connect you to the region's rivers."
A man in a wheelchair at the open house who declined to give his name said he looked forward to using the handicapped-accessible trails, which will be built with switchbacks and a 5-percent grade to climb the bluffs. A young mother near the Telegraph entrance said she looked forward to using the trail with her children and their strollers.
A study on the economic impact of GRG trails found that surrounding houses increased 5 percent in value, Community Program Manager Elizabeth Simons said.
"No, it doesn't," a man interjected at the open house, and residents at Trakas' meeting also said they believe the trail will drag down their property values.
Although neighbors near both the Cliff Cave entrance and the Telegraph entrance have objected to the trail, few spoke up last week from the Telegraph side.
Instead, residents near Cliff Cave voiced their concerns about the plan and about Great Rivers Greenway, a taxpayer-funded trail district that they believe is unresponsive to citizen concerns.
"They were very dismissive of me, and nobody up there would ever meet with me," park neighbor Joan Steska said. "A lot of people never got answers to their emails."
New England Town resident Amanda Elliott said she sent a four-page letter to the Great Rivers Greenway board, which replied back with a two-line note.
They also believe the trail expansion would bring more visitors to the already-congested road, which brings visitors speeding by their houses and staying past park closing. Current patrolling by park rangers is inadequate, and they often forget to lock the gates at night, residents contended.
"These kids blast their motor up the hill, and it's a drag strip," New England Town neighbor Jamie Toebe said.
"I deny that," Trakas joked.
The problems have gotten increasingly worse since the last Cliff Cave expansion five years ago, Toebe added.
Safety an issue, citizens say
In Elliott's letter to the greenway board, she said she recounted how a man pulled a knife on her husband while her family was walking in Cliff Cave. They called for a park ranger, but got a call back six minutes later that rangers would not be responding and they should call police.
"If the park rangers are afraid to enter the park, how do you think I feel?" Elliott said. "I don't want to enter the park right now. I stopped taking my kids to the park."
Several speakers referred to the double homicide of two young boys and suicide of their father in Cliff Cave last fall and other incidents that have happened in the park over the years, including fatal overdoses, fatal falls off the bluffs and drownings in the cave before it was locked.
It can take police up to 15 minutes to re-spond to the park, they contended.
Trash and littering is also a problem in the park, they said.
"Beer bottles, broken glass, syringes," Elliott said. "Forty-six parking spaces and a bathroom is just not realistic."
Two of the residents attending the session were in favor of the trail, hoping it would add to local recreational options.
Mike O'Brien, who lives near Becker Road down Telegraph from the new Erb entrance, said he would be able to access Cliff Cave easier with the new trail.
"I was kind of excited because I see it as an opportunity where I could ride my bike from my house to the trail and it's convenient, but it sounds like there's already problems that haven't been addressed," he said. "I hope it can all get worked out."
Although a city resident in attendance suggested that the Oakville trail would sit unused and deteriorate like previous trails built in north city, an Oakville resident in favor of the trail shook his head in disagreement.
"If anything, this one will have the opposite problem — too much usage," he said.