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As the northernmost trailhead on the proposed Yamhelas Westsider Trail, Gaston could become a one-stop shop for tourists' natural and recreational needs

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Gaston Mayor Tony Hall (left) talks with resident Greg Perttula, who lives near one possible route of the Yamhelas Westsider Trail. Perttula was interested in learning more about the project and open to it as long as he didn't lose his driveway.The northern tip of the Yamhelas Westsider Trail is probably five to 10 years away from appearing in Gaston.

But when it does arrive — and when the roughly 20-mile trail from McMinnville to Scoggins Creek is finished — Gaston is likely to reap a greater positive impact than any other town along the way, said Dan Miller, a National Park Service community planner.

Miller led a planning session in Gaston last week to consider the four miles of trail that would run from Flett Road in Yamhill County north to Scoggins Creek in Washington County.

Gaston could be the jumping-off point for three huge nearby natural areas — Washington County’s Hagg Lake/Scoggins Valley Park, Metro’s Chehalem Ridge Natural Area, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s Wapato National Wildlife Refuge — as well as for future canoe/kayak access to the Tualatin River. It would also connect Yamhelas travelers to a vast network of trails that will eventually criss-cross the whole northwestern part of the state.

That’s what makes the trail’s potential so great in Gaston, where it could draw thousands of tourists a year and beef up the local economy, said Miller. And since many more visitors would likely come from the Portland metro area than from Yamhill County, the Gaston trailhead on the north side would be much busier than the others, he said.

“It may change the whole face of our business district,” said Gaston Mayor Tony Hall.

Here’s the plan

The trail will bisect an old railroad right-of-way corridor which is 60 feet wide for most of the trail’s 20 miles. The actual trail area will be only about 16 feet wide: 10 feet for a paved path, four feet for a natural-surface path and two for a buffer zone in between.

The 10-foot paved path is required in order to qualify as an “alternative transportation” route, a category that qualifies it for a wider array of government funding, Miller said.

So far — according to Jayne Mercer, Yamhill County’s grants and special projects manager — the trail has scored more than $2 million through two grants and local matching money, as well as a two-year donation of technical assistance from Miller and other NPS staff. That stint ends next fall.

Trail planners have inventoried the ownership and physical character of the potential route and collected feedback from local residents, most of whom are supportive, Miller said.

Some adjacent landowners worried, however, that the trail would hinder their attempts to move livestock or farm machinery across it or would bring noise and criminals to the area. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD  - Starting from this empty lot near Gaston's north border, the railroad right-of-way that runs all along Highway 47 is being eyed for everything from a parking lot the length of three football fields, to the location for attractive retail stores, to one of three possible routes for the Yamhelas Westsider Trail, which could spark other development in town. Meanwhile, owners of the Scoggins Creek Coffee kiosk don't want any changes to hurt their business.

Miller said he and other trail advocates have addressed some of those concerns, with plans for visual screening, for example, as well as a four-gate system to stop trail traffic when necessary.

Southern Pacific Transportation Company, which owns most of the railway corridor, appears willing to sell it to the two relevant counties, starting with a nine-mile section at the south end of the trail, from Gun Club Road to Roosevelt Drive, and a three-mile section from Roosevelt to Northwest Country Lane, said Mercer.

Yamhill County is about six months away from that purchase, she said.

While trail completion is still years away, key decisions must be made now.

Searching for solutions

One big decision for the Gaston area is how to handle the busy intersection where quarry trucks and local vehicles on Flett Road meet commuters whizzing past on Highway 47. Wayne Wiebke, vice president of Friends of the Yamhelas Westsider Trail, said it’s one of the two most dangerous intersections along the route (the other involves Highway 240 in Yamhill).

And just north of Flett, 500 feet of the corridor passes through land owned by a resident who might not be open to negotiating trail access.

The trail route itself is up for discussion in Gaston. One option is to run it through the railroad right-of-way adjacent to Highway 47. Another is to run it along Onion Lane, the narrow road between Gaston Feed and the fire station. A third would be to run it along the border of Brown Park.

But perhaps the biggest decision is related to parking and where to put the northernmost trailhead.

Generally, trailheads are big enough for bathrooms, informational kiosks and an average of 10 to 30 cars. But Mayor Hall envisions a different sort of trailhead for Gaston: a giant, 900-foot swath of parking along the east side of Highway 47 from the city’s north border at the Tualatin River to its south border at Olson Road.

Hall said he’s seen what happens when trailhead parking fills up at the popular Banks-Vernonia Trail: the overflow backs up all along the rail line. He doesn’t want overflow parking to clog Gaston, where parking is already a problem.

But Dave Rohrer, who leases and controls the railroad right-of-way where Hall would like to add the parking, doesn’t like the idea. “Giving up your whole downtown core?” he said. “Nobody would park over there and walk across the street. They don’t want to do it now.”

Rohrer would like to see a five-acre parking lot south of the fire station and other buildings at Gaston’s north end.

The owner of that property, Scott Flaherty, is open to selling it. And though it sits in the floodplain, “I’ve got 300 loads of dirt I could put on it to raise it up,” Rohrer said.

Business owners will meet in April to discuss parking and other issues.

Gaston renassaince

Giant new parking areas are just one way Gaston could change with the coming trail.

Traffic could be a problem if pedestrians and left-turners end up waiting endlessly to cross or turn off Highway 47.

If handled well, however, the increased traffic could be a boost for Gaston’s economy, said Hall, bringing hundreds of visitors to town on summer weekends. Local businesses would likely see more customers and new businesses might spring up.

With his right-of-way, Rohrer is uniquely suited for retail development east of Highway 47, where “everything else is floodplain,” he said.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Onion Lane is one possible location for the Yamhelas Trail, threading between Gaston Fire buildings (left) and other buildings, including the Gaston Feed (right).

He has long pictured tourist-oriented shops, perhaps offering ice cream or fast food, perhaps shaped like railroad cars to honor the train station that used to sit there or an “old west” town.

“I’ve had that vision for 24 years,” he said.

Trail planners are still working on a concept plan, which should be done this summer and ready for an open house by the fall.

The next step would be detailed engineering and construction designs, followed by actual construction once the land is bought.

Five to 10 years is a reasonable estimate for that whole process, Miller said, but “you never know.” If grants come through, he said, if things fall into place, it could be sooner.

Warm up to cold shoulder, trail leader suggests

While the Gaston-area link of the Yamhelas Westsider Trail might be five to 10 years away, there’s no reason trail advocates can’t start working right now on connecting the trail further north to Forest Grove, said Dan Miller, a community planner with the National Park Service.

The bulk of the 17- to 20-mile Yamhelas trail is in Yamhill County and will follow an old railway corridor north to Scoggins Creek near the turnoff to Hagg Lake. But that’s where the railway corridor stops—at least for the trail. North of that, the rail line is still in use, so right-of-way is unavailable to bikers, hikers and equestrians.

Instead of a 16-foot corridor with paved and natural-surface paths as on the Yamhelas trail, Miller suggests the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to continue north would be to widen and improve the already wide shoulder along Highway 47 from Scoggins Creek to Forest Grove’s B Street.

The Washington County section of the Yamhelas Trail — and its extension north to Forest Grove is already on Metro’s trail plan, Miller said. That opens up funding possibilities, he said.

Miller urged local trail advocates to start working with the Oregon Department of Transportation on improvements to the shoulder that would make it safe for at least hikers and bikers. They could later pursue buying the rail corrider if it’s ever abandoned, he said.

While not as scenic, an improved Highway 47 shoulder would make the pivotal connection between the Yamhelas and other trails that will eventually run through Forest Grove: not only the city’s own encircling “emerald necklace” trail, but also the Council Creek Trail that would connect travelers to Hillsboro and a network of Metro trails to the east, as well as to the Banks-Vernonia Trail, which itself would connect to the 86-mile Salmonberry trail to Tillamook.


By Jill Rehkopf Smith
Editor
503-357-3181
email: jrsmith@fgnewstimes.com

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