Forging a new path

Neighbors, park district seek common ground on Lowami Woods improvements
by: Jaime Valdez Rick Williams steps over rocks along Johnson Creek, which flows through Lowami Hart Woods Park.

On a balmy, late Tuesday afternoon, Grant Christensen pauses under a canopy of trees to take in the sun-dappled serenity of an undeveloped natural area near his Southwest Beaverton home.

'It's rush hour, and it's quiet here,' he observes while traipsing along a well-worn dirt trail along Johnson Creek with his wife, Priscilla, and the couple's neighbor Rick Williams. 'At the right time of year, you can hear owls, Western screech owls. There's a whole host of wildlife out here.'

Neighbors such as Williams and the Christensens have enjoyed the pleasures of Lowami Hart Woods Park, a 26-acre wooded preserve behind their homes on streets off Hart Road, for decades.

Once adjacent parcels owned by the former Camp Fire Girls organization and a private developer, the suburban forest was preserved as a whole when the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District purchased the land with the support of Metro regional government and the city of Beaverton.

While in no danger of morphing into a subdivision or shopping center, Lowami Woods' future is clouded by controversy concerning just how much - and what types of -'improvement' the trail-and-stream-laden area needs to retain its appeal, while serving the wider community's needs.

The future of Lowami Woods will be discussed Monday evening at the park district's board of directors meeting. To accommodate an expected larger-than-usual turnout, the meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. in the Manzanita Room of the Elsie Stuhr Center, 5550 S.W. Hall Blvd. instead of the board's usual Walker Road venue.

A natural state

The park district has mapped out a plan, whose estimated price tag hovers around $1.2 million, that officials say will address problems involving access and environmental concerns, while preserving the woods' essentially untouched nature.

The proposal calls for relocating the main trail away from Johnson Creek, expanding its width with an asphalt or similar surface that resists the erosion and wear of foot, bicycle and stroller traffic.

Plans also include an expanded parking area along Hart Road, upgrading park entry points, a trail loop accommodating those with physical disabilities and adding amenities for nature-oriented education and children's workshops.

Neighbors such as Williams and the Christensens say they generally favor the plans, particularly the aspects that protect the Johnson Creek watershed. However, they say the scale and likely expense of the proposals are unsuited for the park's natural ambience and primary purpose.

'A lot of what they have in this plan is good stuff,' Grant Christensen says. 'This belongs to everybody. Everyone should have access to it. All we ask is when you develop to protect it, don't overdevelop it so that the animals and wildlife move out.'

Scale it back?

Armed with a stack of maps and years' worth of park district proposals and documentation on a recent afternoon park stroll, Priscilla Christensen echoes what she says are the sentiments of hundreds of neighbors and community members.

'The neighborhood as a whole is supportive of a lower-impact, lower-cost, environmentally sensitive, modest development. That's really always been the expectation of the neighborhood since 2001, when the (park) master plan was developed,' she says.

Hal Bergsma, the park district's director of planning, says despite drafting a master plan in 2001, renovation plans for Lowami Woods have waxed and waned for years. With funding now available through a $100 million bond measure voters approved in 2008, and increased discussion between district officials and the public, however, more specific plans have come into focus.

Some aspects are less controversial than others.

Narrowing options

'We don't think it's fine the way it is,' Bergsma says of the natural area. 'It does need some help in terms of (trail) restoration, and we have $300,000 set aside just for that purpose.'

That includes removing 'rogue' trails that branch off Johnson Creek trail and removing invasive plant species.

'That's a lot of work, and a good part of the budget will go to that,' he says.

One of the key objections from the Christensen-led camp, which favors relocating a more stable trail that helps protect Johnson Creek from runoff and erosion problems, pertains to the proposed trail's width and makeup.

Updated standards for 'community trails' established in 1998 and updated in 2006 call for 8-foot-wide paved trails with 1-foot-wide shoulders.

In response to public comment that felt the standards were excessive for Lowami Woods, the park district proposed a compromise.

'We agreed to narrow it down to 6 feet, with no shoulders,' Bergsma says, noting that the trail may see modifications as plans to connect it to a larger community network take shape. 'It may be widened in the future.'

While she appreciates the compromise, Priscilla Christensen says she still finds a 6-foot pathway a bit excessive, and petroleum-based asphalt a poor surface choice for a nature preserve near a floodplain.

'Rather than a 10-foot-wide asphalt swath, we got it down to 6 feet,' she says. 'There are other types of pervious surfaces. We maintain this is, by the park district's own definition, a neighborhood trail rather than a community trail.'

Hitting the pavement

Bergsma acknowledges Christensen's preference for a gravel or crushed-rock surface, but maintains an asphalt trail is more advantageous.

Admitting the asphalt surface concept for Lowami is not, shall we say, set in stone, he says pavement has worked well in other parks.

'We haven't seen any evidence that (asphalt) has had an adverse effect' on soil or the watershed, Bergsma says.

Any equipment used in construction, he notes, would be scaled appropriately for the trails. 'There are other materials we could use, other kinds of stabilizers, but we haven't seen that (leaching) has been a problem,' he adds.

While Bergsma admits a 'controversy' exists over the direction of renovation for the park, he expressed confidence that a satisfactory compromise could be reached in the near future.

'There's not a wide range of differences about where we should be,' he says. 'Both sides want to see improvements to the site as a natural area.'

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