To protect the chaparral and other sensitive plants of Lime Ridge Open Space from being trampled by hordes of mountain bikers and hikers, Walnut Creek officials are planning to build a two-mile “flow trail” through the 1,200-acre swath of ridge land on the eastern edge of the city.
They hope the multi-use trail will be so steep and challenging in spots that cyclists will take to it and stop carving their own trails through brush and plants, eroding dirt along the way.
But some residents of the city’s Rancho Paraiso neighborhood just south of Lime Ridge fear the planned trail would exacerbate traffic and parking problems on their streets by drawing even more mountain bikers to the open space, which has become a popular spot during the pandemic for people seeking outdoor exercise and social distancing.
The residents have launched an online petition that claims the trail would allow cyclists to convert Lime Ridge from a peaceful haven with 25 miles of walking trails to a biking hot spot. About 500 people have signed the petition so far.
Leading the charge against the planned trail is Valerie Gardner, who accuses the city of catering to mountain bikers.
“They come plowing down through people who are hiking and creating problems between user groups,” Gardner said. “I’ve had to stop to make room for them, even though they’re not supposed to be on the trails.”
Mike Vickers, a city public works official, emphasized the trail will be for everyone, not just cyclists. The trail plan is in a “holding pattern” while the city’s consultants finishing assessing its potential impact on the area’s natural habitat, such as erosion.
Although opponents have pushed to put the trail plan on the City Council’s agenda, Vickers said the public works director has the authority to approve it.
Though he didn’t have specific figures, Vickers said hundreds of thousands of people have visited Lime Ridge over the past few years and the numbers went up “drastically” after the pandemic started.
“Two of our longest-employed rangers — one has been here 20 years, the other 17 years — say they have never seen the volume of people in open space as we’ve had during COVID,” Vickers said. “In fact, they would say the numbers have at least doubled.”
The new trail would only compound that, Gardner said, adding that cyclists will flock to and park in Arbolado Park which lies between her Rancho Paraiso neighborhood and Lime Ridge.
And while city officials say the trail would be open to everyone, Gardner and other opponents say it would benefit mostly cyclists.
“It’s a roller coaster kind of ride that they’re talking about — bringing mountain bikers straight down from the top of Lime Ridge to the bottom,” she said.
Vickers and other city officials have looked into developing new trails in Walnut Creek’s open spaces for years. In a report last December, a committee that advises the city’s parks and recreation commission on making open spaces more amenable to the public noted that certain activities at Lime Ridge cause “significant damage to the surrounding environment.”
Specifically, the report states that “unauthorized social trails have been haphazardly created by certain user groups” and points out that in one area of Lime Ridge, cyclists created their own trail by riding downhill and clearing out what stood in front of them.
That makeshift trail “cuts directly through chaparral habitat, destroying vegetation and disrupts natural wildlife behavior and water flow through the area,” the report states.
Citing emails she obtained through public record requests, Gardner contends cycling advocates have been lobbying public works officials to build the new trail.
But members of the Bicycle Trails Council of the East Bay have pushed back against the notion they’re muscling the city to build a trail.
“I don’t think the development of trails in that area are violating any public processes,” said Scott Bartlebaugh, the bicycle trails council’s advocacy director.
In a March email, City Manager Dan Buckshi admonished Gardner for her “verbal attacks” on the integrity of city officials, saying the city had been acting in good faith to create more space for outdoor activities amid the pandemic.
“I hope you can find it within yourself to maintain some perspective about a proposal for a dirt trail,” Buckshi wrote.