Franklin County has a new road -- one some have been waiting for since 1984.
That's when Congress established the Juniper Dunes Wilderness Area, with the idea that legal public access would be provided soon.
On Wednesday, Franklin County commissioners unanimously approved recognizing the first 2.18 miles of Peterson Road as a county road, allowing a project to pave it to move forward.
Peterson Road is the way most people access the wilderness area. The 2.18 miles would be from the Pasco-Kahlotus Highway to the first portion of federal Bureau of Land Management land, said Tim Fife, county public works director and engineer.
But from that point, there are two more miles before the road reaches the Juniper Dunes boundary, and they cross a mix of public and private land.
Juniper Dunes, with about 20,000 acres of public land, has been a popular recreation area for Tri-City residents since the 1960s, according to BLM's management plan for the area. Part of it is open to off-road vehicles, and part of it is wilderness that is closed to all vehicles.
BLM, which owns Juniper Dunes, is contracting with Franklin County to buy and improve the first 2.18 miles of the road.
June Hues, border field manager for the BLM in Spokane, said it's difficult for BLM to create solid plans until access takes place. Having the public road that terminates at BLM property approved will help in providing legal access along the rest of the road to Juniper Dunes.
"This is really important to us," she said. "This has been a huge problem."
Fife said the project also will help provide better access for 37 homeowners who use the road to access their property.
People have been driving past the private road signs, and the road hasn't been well maintained, said Franklin County Commission Chairman Bob Koch. That makes it difficult for emergency vehicles and the sheriff to respond to calls in a timely manner.
Franklin Fire District 3 Chief Les Litzenberger said the project will help the fire district respond to medical and fire calls in the area. He estimates he receives six medical calls per year.
Several residents who used Juniper Dunes recreationally asked commissioners to create the county road.
Earl Nettnin of Kennewick, regional director for Pacific Northwest 4-Wheel Drive Association, said he would like to have legal access created to help preserve access to one of the remaining areas where four-wheel-drive recreation is permitted.
The funding is a little short of the project estimate, with $716,500 from the federal government that Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., helped acquire and a rough estimate of up to $872,000 for the project.
But Fife said he is hoping the cost will be lower, especially with the good bidding climate. And if it isn't, the county may need to gravel part of the 2.18 miles instead of pave all of it.