Scott Woodward paused during the mid-morning hike Tuesday, motioning toward a creature darting through the brush several yards away.
It was a black-tailed jackrabbit, one of the many kinds of animals that live in and around the Amon Creek Natural Preserve in south Richland.
"That's a little guy," Woodward, president of Tapteal Greenway, said as he watched the rabbit scurry along. "This is the last place that they are in any kind of abundance in a natural setting in our whole region."
Soon, they may have less space to roam.
A new subdivision, called Clearwater Creek, is proposed next to the 80-plus acre preserve. It would include 320 residential lots, about 14 acres for a future school and 32 acres of open space.
The project heads to the Richland Planning Commission tonight, where a public hearing is planned.
The subdivision has stirred controversy in the community over potential harmful effects on the Amon preserve, although an agreement between Woodward's group, which worked to create the Amon preserve, and developer Hayden Homes now has eased some of the concern.
The deal establishes a buffer area between the Amon preserve and the proposed subdivision.
Still, a separate but related issue has some residents worried. The city plans to at some point extend a road through the natural preserve as part of a larger east-west route that would stretch through the proposed subdivision.
The city will require right of way through the subdivision, including the buffer area, for the east-west route as a condition of the project.
The final alignment of that future route won't be part of what the planning commission will consider during tonight's meeting, although it may come up during the session's public comment time.
Woodward said his group wants to see the city drop the idea of running a road through the preserve.
"This (preserve) has a lot of value now, but even more value down the road. It's a legacy project," he said. "... This is the last opportunity for anybody to say 'no' on something of this scale and this magnitude and this value. It's the last opportunity because there's nothing (like it) left."
The Clearwater Creek project is to sit on more than 100 acres south of Claybell Community Park between Steptoe Street and Leslie Road. The Amon preserve is west of the planned subdivision.
The buffer arrangement was the result of months of work between the developer and Tapteal.
Hayden Homes will donate about eight acres to Tapteal, and the nonprofit will buy another four acres at a discounted price of $160,000.
Nathan Machiela, land development manager for Hayden Homes, described the buffer arrangement between his group and Tapteal as positive.
"It's great the way the Tapteal Greenway group, which is all about conservation, and a development company were able to work together to come to an agreement that's benefited both parties," he said.
He added that Clearwater Creek would "provide an opportunity for people to buy a home they might not otherwise be able to afford in the Richland area. We're hoping to afford people the opportunity to buy a home in the city."
Tapteal Greenway had hoped for years to bring the Clearwater Creek land into the preserve, and it partnered with the state Department of Fish & Wildlife to go after grant money, but just missed out.
It planned to revive the effort, but then the subdivision proposal came about.
Woodward said his group would prefer to see the land untouched, but the buffer agreement at least means some protection for the existing preserve.
"That was our whole goal -- to protect it as much as we could. We have done our best to create protection for the Amon Creek preserve," he said.
He said the city did a good job being meticulous as the subdivision proposal underwent environmental review. But he said the idea of a road through the preserve is troubling.
Several residents also raised objections to the road in recent letters to the city.
"This roadway would permanently damage the creek and the ecosystem adjoining it in order to simply shorten a drive to Columbia Center by a few minutes. There should be no question that the minor inconvenience of a longer drive is a small price that residents of Richland would be happy to pay for the sake of preserving a local natural treasure," one woman wrote to the city.
Others residents support the new road.
City officials said the idea of a street between Steptoe and Leslie isn't new. The city years ago identified the eventual need for it to accommodate increasing traffic in the growing area, which doesn't have many east-west connections.
A condition of creating the Amon Creek preserve was that a road could eventually run across it to make that happen, said Rick Simon, Richland's development services manager.
The city hasn't made final a road route from Leslie to the subdivision, which is the stretch that would cross the preserve. When it comes time to do that, it will involve a public process, the city has said.
During tonight's meeting, the planning commission will consider recommending to the city council a rezone of the property, as well as the preliminary plat. City staffers are recommending the zoning changes and the preliminary plat with several conditions, including that the development must conform to specific environmental mitigation measures.
The planning commission meets at 7 p.m. at Richland City Hall, 505 Swift Blvd.
-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @saraTCHerald