Off-road driving enthusiasts and landowners had their say at an open house for a road planned to access a popular Franklin County wilderness area.
More than 80 people attended the Thursday meeting to learn more about an environmental study for the long-desired road at Juniper Dunes. The area is popular with people who drive various jeeps, trucks and motorcycles in the sand, but have no legal way onto the land because the road to the off-highway vehicle area goes through private property.
Franklin County is planning to build a 4.2- to 4.9-mile road to Juniper Dunes. Most of the price tag -- estimated between $1.8 million and $2.25 million -- would be picked up by the Federal Highway Administration, with the county having to pay $330,000. A mile of the road would be paved with the remainder a dirt road covered with chip seal.
Juniper Dunes, about 18 miles northeast of Pasco, contains a 7,100-acre fenced wilderness area, a 3,900-acre open area that's a popular local spot for picnicking and driving off-road vehicles, and a 8,600-acre environmental conservation area, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management.
The county and federal government are looking at two main routes to connect the Pasco-Kahlotus Highway with the dunes, County Engineer Matt Rasmussen said.
One would follow the existing Peterson Road, but the road is considered rough, and large irrigation pipelines a few feet below the surface already stopped a previous effort to build the road there. The other route is just to the east, but would require the county to obtain private farmland.
Rasmussen assured those in the audience at the TRAC that the federal money included compensation for farmers who lose crop space or have to adjust irrigation lines.
Alan and Jan Rogers, who farm adjacent to the proposed second route, still worry about the people who could drive through the farmland.
The farm uses hazardous chemicals, and Jan Rogers fears what that could mean for people who trespass.
"If people help themselves to our onions or our corn, are we at some point going to be liable for them becoming sick?" she asked.
Others said that people farm next to roads all over the county and can deal with people driving near their property.
It makes no sense to build a completely new road when an existing road is already there, Alan Rogers said.
"I can't see how repairing the main line would be cost prohibitive," he said.
The road is still years away. Rasmussen said the federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees Juniper Dunes, will begin negotiations on acquiring the land next year. Construction is scheduled to start in 2016 and wrap up by spring 2017.
The money for the project is "almost there," but is always subject to issues like future government shutdowns, said Keith Wong, the Federal Highway Administration's project manager.
"As of now, we do have the money programmed for the project, but you never know what will happen in D.C.," he said. "There is a very, very, very slim chance that something will happen in 2016."
The road can't come soon enough for those who use Juniper Dunes.
"The wilderness came along in 1984, and we were promised access," said Rick Burk of Kennewick, a longtime rider in the area. "We've yet to see it happen."
People interested in commenting for the environmental review can contact Rasmussen at 509-545-3514 or mrasmussen@ co.franklin.wa.us or Seth English-Young of the highway department at 360-619-7803 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The review is designed to determine the project's biology, people and historic and cultural resources.
The comments received will help determine whether more public meetings will be held, Wong said.
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; email@example.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom