This blocked-off sidewalk off Mill Creek Drive leads to the San Miguel Trail behind the Cinema Court Apartments. The trail remains closed, pending a legal review of a case that aims to resolve a seven-year dispute over access to the trailhead. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

As trick-or-treaters poured onto Moab’s sidewalks on Halloween, the Grand Vu subdivision south of the city limits was relatively quiet. A pedestrian and bike trail connecting Mill Creek Drive to the neighborhood remains unfinished, a long-standing issue that residents, Moab City and Grand County leaders say they hope to see resolved in the near future.

Depositions begin this month in the case that Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald filed 18 months ago to resolve a property dispute that halted completion of work on the trail behind the Cinema Court Apartments.

After six years of disagreement between trail proponents and property owners, the Grand County Council unanimously asked Fitzgerald to file legal paperwork in May 2015. The hope is that a court will determine who owns the disputed “waste parcels” at the end of the San Miguel Drive cul-de-sac where the trail is designed to terminate.

The depositions are a final step in the discovery phase of the legal proceedings, Fitzgerald said. If an agreement can’t be reached between the county on one side and property owners Drew Roots and the Shuey family on the other, a trial date will be set early in the new year.

The trail connection that hangs in the balance is about 300 feet long, but the controversy it has stirred is uncovering a much larger chasm between the intentions and interests on either side of the dispute.

“This has gone on a long time,” Grand County Trail Mix Committee chair Sandy Freethey said. “Mostly, I hope they just decide.”

Her sentiments echoed those of many figures involved in the drawn-out dispute, including Moab City Planning Commission member Jeanette Kopell.

“I’m hoping we can work together,” Kopell said. “Let’s talk, and work it through. I think there’s a way to work together without resorting to the court system.”

Residents who will be affected by the decision are also eager for a solution, as evidenced by participation in Facebook community discussions and letters to the editors of both local newspapers.

“The trail dispute has never been as cut and dried as some people think,” Roots wrote in a May 2015 letter to the editor of the Moab Sun News. “As more info comes to light, perhaps advocates of the trail will come to see the Shuey’s point of view. I’m not against bike trails, but I stand for fairness.”

Roots declined to comment for this article because of his involvement in the legal proceedings.

The City of Moab and Grand County are not alone in walking the delicate line between property rights and viable transportation systems that connect neighborhoods to town centers, Kopell said. As traditionally rural towns across the nation increase in size and population, property rights based on informal agreements and surveys based on impermanent land features leave modern city and county planners guiding growth in muddy waters.

“Things change, like creek bottoms,” she said, explaining that one corner of her own property is actually in the bed of a creek that meandered, for example.

That makes it difficult to retroactively create paths across existing property lines in order to connect new development to older parts of any community, she said.

The San Miguel to Mill Creek Drive Trail is part of the 2011 Grand County Non-Motorized Master Trails Plan, which was created with input from multiple regional stakeholders who make up the Grand County Trail Mix board.

“The Master Plan is a wish list, though,” Freethey said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a trail along Pack Creek? Sure, but it’s a wish list. It’s on our master plan, but many property owners have land on both sides of the creek. Some are horse people, and they understandably don’t want people having easy access to their fence lines.”

She said she is sympathetic to the concerns of those who oppose the trail. During the brief period of time when the trail did connect to San Miguel Drive, residents complained of vandalism, trash accumulation and trespassing on their properties, according to residents who commented on the Citizens for Transparency in Local Government Facebook page.

“I personally witnessed unauthorized people walk up that trail and into (my grandmother’s) yard (and) around her house,” Virginia Shuey’s granddaughter Cassie Patterson wrote.

Numerous people also voiced concern about the safety of the trail – not only from illegal activity but also from poor trail maintenance, and insufficient engineering to protect the trail or those on it in case Pack Creek floods.

Grand County Council member Chris Baird said the county is also sympathetic to those concerns. If the judge determines that the property in question belongs to the county, he said officials will move forward to assess the viability of the trail and estimate the cost of engineering and construction in compliance with applicable building codes.

“All the safety issues can be resolved,” he said. “A lot of streams are crossed by the Mill Creek bike path, and all of them are in a flood plain.”

Ultimately, the pressing reason why the county chose to pursue the trail connection in the courts was to preserve public access to public property, Fitzgerald said.

He cited the example of a private property owner who charges people to cross a strip of land that separates Kane Creek Road from the entrance to Pritchett Canyon. Once public access is lost, the battle to regain it is often costly, and becomes a burden that taxpayers bear, he said.

“It’s always bad for government to give up easements and access,” Fitzgerald said. “In the end, it’s good for the community to have these safe transportation alternatives. It keeps kids from going down the highway to get into town. It keeps our bicycle commuters safe.”

Regardless of the outcome of the litigation, development going forward in Moab will include trail development according to the master plan, Moab City Planning Director Jeff Reinhart said.

“We have a lot of very willing developers who approach us about trails,” Reinhart said. “Development is really where we’re most easily able to act on our trail plan. It’s always better when we can tailor the trail easement to fit into their plans.”

Depositions begin this month to bring resolution to San Miguel controversy

It’s always bad for government to give up easements and access. In the end, it’s good for the community to have these safe transportation alternatives. It keeps kids from going down the highway to get into town. It keeps our bicycle commuters safe.