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Holladay Journal

Potential trail system pits canal residents against public opinion

Mar 29, 2021 11:00AM ● By Zak Sonntag

City-owned canal runs through Holladay. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

The 2019 Community Priorities survey, commissioned by Holladay City and conducted by Y2 Analytics, had a few clear takeaways. It indicated that while Holladay residents are generally pleased with the quality of life offered in the city, they are nonetheless unimpressed by the quality of sidewalks, roads and streetlights.

There was one priority in particular, however, that appealed to an especially broad demographic, scooping up a top spot across all age groups. From Gen Z to boomers and those in between, survey responders appear to covet a trail system to enhance walkability and non-motor vehicle recreation.

Although, don’t call footpaths a unifying issue just yet, because the City’s first baby step toward the realization of a larger trail system has been met with threats of organized resistance by property owners near potential pathways.

The consternation arose when the City explained in the February issue of the Holladay Journal that it was “studying the feasibility of trails along canals owned by Salt Lake City Public Utilities that run throughout the City,” pursuant to public opinion in favor of trails as revealed in the 2019 survey. The City furthermore exhorted the public to participate in an additional, canal-specific survey through the month of February to encourage community involvement.

However, before the latest poll results even returned, a contingent of residents reacted strongly after misinterpreting the City’s overture as a done-deal that would turn their backyards into a parade vista before the year’s end.

“I feel this project has not been fully disclosed and that the surveys published on [the city] website are bias and contain some inaccurate information. I myself knew nothing about this canal project until it popped up on social media,” said Genevieve Christianson, a resident whose home on Shangri Lane abuts one of the canals along which a theoretical trail might be developed.

“I moved into this neighborhood for its privacy, preserved history and untouched nature. How can this continue if you insert a high-traffic, paved trail with light pollution into our quiet neighborhood. We have become organized, and we will continue to oppose this until it’s no longer a threat to our community,” Christianson said. 

The council was caught flatfooted by the spate of complaints, and went off agenda to address the issue and allay community concerns during a March council meeting.

“I think the residents are getting way out ahead of this issue. We are on the very front end of investigating, and doing some due diligence to see if we wanted to consider the opportunity to create some walking trails along the canal easements,” Mayor Robert Dahle said. “Maybe that’s our fault as a city and we’ve communicated in a way that makes citizens feel like this is an imminent project. But that’s not the case at all. It’s a first step to see if we want to move forward.”

Yet the blowback doesn’t square with wider opinions of this evidently trail-hungry community, revealing how one resident’s amenity may be another’s bane, leaving the council in a state of surprise and uncertain what the next steps should be as they await the results of the follow-up poll.

“We haven’t even gotten the official results of the [canal-trail specific] study back and we’re already hearing a lot. That’s helpful,” said Councilmember Dan Gibbons.

Still, there are those who are advocating full speed ahead with a comprehensive trail system, especially members of the burgeoning cyclist community.

“We have one of the fastest growing cycling communities in the entire United States. People here want to ride bicycles and they’re going to ride them. It makes total sense to increase the designated paths for them,” said a local bicycle shop owner, who asked not to be identified by name.

“There are tons of benefits to investing in trails. Just think about the economics of it. People really want the infrastructure for cycling. I am 100% in favor of a canal trail system,” said the shop owner. 

However, for the canal residents, there is a perception that a trail system may undermine public safety, believing that such public spaces create opportunity for unsavory behavior.

“Part of the charm of the neighborhood is the privacy and feeling safe, and the serenity with the natural environment. Putting a trail in will change that. Who’s to say that only law-abiding citizens will use it. How will we prevent transients from setting up camps and casing our houses?” said Applewood Avenue resident Nicole Naffzinger.

Still it is unclear if the canal community’s fears are warranted; presumably, safe and friendly trail systems exist as well. Also, some worry that not having canal trail systems compromises safety in other ways.

“The ability to take a cyclist and put them on a designated path increases safety in Holladay. You will reduce traffic accidents and fatalities,” said the local bike shop owner, pointing to the growing number of motor vehicle accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians.

It remains to be seen how the City will respond if broader support for a trails system remains robust. On the heels of a revitalized appreciation for the outdoors spurred by the pandemic lockdown, combined with the community’s already high excitement about trails, the City may find itself in a tricky place trying to please all parties.

“I’m in favor of trails, but not in these particular neighborhoods. The questions that have been posed [by canal residents] are impossible to answer because they presuppose it’s a slated project that’s moving ahead with freight train-like speed. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s the front end of a conversation about one idea that has been put forward,” Councilmember Gibbons said.