Beef on the Bike Path!

But peace may be possible over Honeybee Trails

A fight has been brewing for months for over access to trails on State Trust Land.

The battle is between cyclists and a homeowner association, with the Town of Oro Valley in the middle. It has involved complaints about the behavior of cyclists, new gates that blocked trails and even tacks tossed onto the trails to puncture tires.

The town has promised a solution and for now, the possibility of an upcoming compromise has calmed the warring sides.

The agreement is a new trail into the renowned Honeybee Trail system, which connects to Tortolita Mountain Park and runs all the way to Dove Mountain. The trail system is considered by many as the best network of bike trails in Southern Arizona. And the new trail could be open for business by Christmas.

The Big Wash trailhead will be on Rancho Vistoso Boulevard, just south of Sun City Oro Valley. Town staff proposes opening a dirt parking area (with plans to eventually pave it) with room for 50 cars, horse-trailer parking, bathrooms, drinking fountains, bike racks and ramadas.

The trail has been in Oro Valley's plan since 1987, but it took the controversy over a utility road to get the ball rolling. Western Area Power Administration Trail 180, or WAPA, runs through Rancho Vistoso to the Honeybee Trails. Residents of Estates at Honey Bee Ridge were not pleased with the heavy bike traffic from cyclists from around the region. They could be noisy, they stirred up dust and they shone bright lights that cut through the desert's calm nights. One year ago, the Honeybee Ridge Homeowner's Association, which manages WAPA, put a gate on the northern end with a sign that read "No Access to State Land."

"A few bad apples give us all a bad name," said Kirk Astroth, a member of the local Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists, who's been frequenting those trails since the '70s. He said 3 to 5 percent of the riders out there were the ones creating the problem, according to his best estimate.

"These trails are so popular," he said. "You're not going to keep people off of them."

He's right. Although the most popular access point is closed, cyclists continue to find ways onto the State Trust trails.

Astroth's group, SDMB, buried a trail counter, "really a glorified metal detector" out there, in a spot where anyone using the trails must pass by. Astroth has calculated its accuracy at 85 percent, usually under-counting. In the first month, from Aug. 19 to Sept. 18, it counted cyclists going down those trails more than 1,000 times.

But people have had to resort to finding other entrances. There was a popular one by a shopping center on the corner of Rancho Vistoso Boulevard and Sun City Boulevard, but now the center sports private-parking signs, because a cyclist (one of the "bad apple" kind) defecated in the parking lot while a horrified woman in a hair salon watched.

Another entrance into the trail system is behind the Vista de la Montaña United Methodist Church in Catalina. SDBM talked to the church, to ensure church officials were OK about parking arrangements and the like.

The church leaders said bikers could park there, although when the parking lot filled up for other events, they would put out "no parking" signs, with SDMB reimbursing them for the cost.

So if people can still get into the trails, what's the big deal? Well, not only are there no amenities such as bathrooms at any other entrance (leading to the horrified woman at the hair salon), but there's no legally sanctioned way in.

"Everybody feels like they're poaching the trails," Astroth said. "They're flying under the radar."

One of these groups forced to poach the trail on a regular basis is the Oro Valley Interscholastic Mountain Bike Team, made up of 45 Oro Valley kids, mostly from Ironwood Ridge and Canyon del Oro high schools. Last fall was their fifth season practicing on the Honeybee Trails and accessing them through WAPA Trail.

A month before the state championship, they were suddenly confronted with a gate and a sign. They started using the trail behind the church, with the church's permission, but it wasn't the same.

"The trail from there was too sandy, not as safe and effective," said Cody Martin, the bike team coach. "It's also a lot harder to keep track of everybody."

The kids weren't familiar with the trail, so it was easier to get off course. Also, they're practicing after school, so the sun going down certainly didn't help. And they had to park on the other side of Oracle Road and cross with 45 kids. It's not surprising they didn't do as well in the state championship as they had in previous years.

When the battle over access began, a Rancho Vistoso resident, now barred from accessing the trails, said that under Arizona law, after more than a decade of using those trails, he was entitled to continue using them. This prompted Oro Valley to issue a formal zoning interpretation, in which they concluded the WAPA Trail should be open to both Rancho Vistoso and Honeybee Ridge residents.

Honeybee Ridge Association President Rolf Sigford filed an appeal, claiming the town's interpretation was wrong, and WAPA was only open to Honeybee residents. Sigford didn't reply to Tucson Local Media's request for an interview.

At the same time, a member from one of the cyclist groups filed an appeal, claiming the WAPA trail is open to the general public. And on top of it all, Astroth says someone had taken to throwing tacks on the trail to pop tires.

Oro Valley's planning manager, Bayer Vella, sat down with each group separately and proposed they hold off on their appeals until the new trailhead is built. They agreed.

He explained to them that the appeals would have to go to the Council-appointed Board of Adjustment, where all parties would be able to make their case. The Board would decide what they thought was fair, so there would be a winner and a loser.

Almost undoubtedly, the loser would appeal, and then it would go to Superior Court—a whole lot of time and money that Big Wash Trail will likely render moot.

The town is working with Pima County, which used GPS to determine the exact location of the new trail that will lead to the Honeybee Trails. And it's all planned so nearby residents won't be able to see or hear a peep.

Oro Valley is holding an open house on Monday, Oct. 23, to let the community know about the project and receive feedback. If all goes well, the town, SDMB and the Oro Valley Interscholastic Mountain Bike Team will start building the trail on Oct. 29.

Parks and Recreation Director Kristy Diaz-Trahan is "confident all will go well." She said they've "worked extensively to make sure this is going to be a good, solid project."

The initial clearing of the trailhead is being done by Pima County Flood Control. The rest of the trailhead will be paid for by impact fees from new home buyers and the developer who owns the land.

Martin and his team are excited to get started building and riding the new trail. The team had tried to work with the Honeybee Ridge HOA, but apparently it didn't work. He said it's been all about "who has a right to what."

"I'd much rather work with everybody and come to an agreement," he said.

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