Richland is reviving plans to extend Rachel Road across the Amon Creek Natural Preserve at its shared border with Kennewick.
It’s been two years since the Richland City Council overruled its own planning commission to include the Rachel Road extension in its long-term transportation plan.
The move disappointed a standing-room-only crowd of opponents in the council’s chambers. But the council faced a difficult choice: Area development necessitates a new east-west connection between Leslie Road and North Steptoe Street.
Two years on, area development continues. The question isn’t if the city extends Rachel Road, but when.
Hayden Homes’ 300-plus subdivision at Clearwater Creek is well under way, and the Kennewick School District secured land in June for a future elementary to serve up to 730 students. The district’s boundaries extend into Richland in the area and the school is supposed to open in 2018.
The neighborhood and the school site are served solely by an extension of Bellerive Drive that dead-ends before connecting to Steptoe.
“The Kennewick School District made some plans based on that road going in,” Richland Mayor Bob Thompson said.
Anticipating controversy, Richland hired a consultant to lead a public process to identify a route that best suits the public’s transportation needs and minimizes damage to the Amon Creek area.
The Langdon Group, a division of J-U-B Engineers, is being paid $153,400 to guide a citizens committee. The committee, which includes representatives from neighborhoods, environmental groups and numerous public agencies, is scheduled to make a recommendation to the city council by May 2017.
Langdon’s work includes managing the committee and taking an inventory of the dozens of species of wildlife, including animals and birds, living in the Amon Creek basin. There are no known endangered or threatened species in the area.
The Rachel Road extension conversation starts with an open house from 4-7 p.m. Dec. 5 at Reata Springs Baptist Church, 2881 Leslie Road.
The Amon Creek Natural Area is a popular walking and hiking destination for Tri-City nature lovers. Its miles of trail pass shrub steppe and marshlands, and offer visitors the chance of encounters with birds, raccoons, beaver, mink, jackrabbits, deer and many more species.
Hills within the preserve bear the marks of past use as a four-wheel haven, now largely stopped.
Supporters fear extending Rachel Road across any portion of the 80-plus acre preserve will damage critical habitat.
The other side includes residents of Hayden Homes’ fast-emerging subdivision and the Kennewick School District.
The school district intends to build its 16th elementary in the neighborhood, a $21 million project with 38 classrooms, the district’s biggest elementary ever.
Residents and the school district want better access, Thompson said.
“There’s an answer between those two extremes,” he said.
No road is the preferred option of Tapteal Greenway. The all-volunteer organization has worked for almost 20 years to preserve sections of the Amon basin habitat from development. It contributed funds that helped the city acquire the property within the Amon Creek Natural Preserve in 2007 and lobbies on its behalf.
Members lead Saturday morning nature walks and operate a network of trail cameras recording wildlife within its borders.
Karen Sowers, its president, sits on the city’s advisory committee.
She praised the work being done to develop consensus about the best corridor. She acknowledged Rachel Road will likely be built, but Tapteal Greenway’s view is unchanged — it opposes the road.
“The fact still remains this is a critical habitat area,” Sowers said.
The city has not yet published the possible routes Rachel Road could take. Sowers is most comfortable siting it along an existing Bonneville Power Administration access road, which serves transmission lines and a substation not far from Leslie Road, she said.
BPA’s access road already crosses Clearwater Creek, which divides the property. Following it would reduce the long-term impact.
The access road has its challenges. There is a pinch point where it passes BPA’s substation.
And the property itself offers a complex mix of interests. The Kennewick Irrigation District, BPA and even the federal Bureau of Land Management and the railroad all have interests and rights of way that must be navigated before any road can be be built.
The citizen group will review feedback from the May 5 meeting and continue to meet through winter and spring. It will hold a second public meeting early next year before presenting its recommendations to the elected City Council. Its tentative deadline is May.
While Rachel Road is included in the city’s transportation plan, it is not in the city’s transportation budget. The cost depends on the route as well, such as if the road is built on grade or is elevated over sensitive areas.
“There’s no money for it in the transportation improvement (budget). But there’s ways to do it,” Thompson said. Developers could be asked to fund some of the cost.