By Paul Myers @PaulM_SGN
EXETER – Rocky Hill is a natural asset for the entire county, but while it sits in Exeter’s easterly backyard, the City has an interest in seeing it revitalized. Fortunately for them, and the rest of the county, plans are well underway.
Last month the County of Tulare rolled out their proposal to widen Rocky Hill’s roadway to make room for pedestrians and casual cyclists separated from the traffic of serious cyclists and passing motorists. The first step toward that goal came on March 19, when 4-Creeks, Inc. presented a feasibility study on a plan to create pedestrian/bike lanes on 3.35 miles of Rocky Hill Drive between Spruce Road (Road 204) and Yokohl Valley Drive.
Design Option 1, the preferred option for cyclists and motorists, would create a 39-foot right-of-way that would include (from hill to hillside) a 8-foot wide, two-lane Class I bike/ped path and a 20-foot, two-lane roadway shared by bicycles and cars, also known as a Class III bikeway, separated by a five-foot buffer with a fence. The Class I paths will be used by casual cyclists and pedestrians while the Class III will be reserved for experienced riders more comfortable sharing the road with cars than people. The cost is an estimated $3.1 million.
Richard Walker, Chief Planner for 4 Creeks in Visalia, presented the Rocky Hill path feasibility study to the Exeter council at their April 23 meeting. Walker outlined that Design Option 1 was the overtly preferred over Design Option 2 that included a 5-foot Class I bike paths on both sides of a 20-foot wide, two-lane roadway as well as a Class I bike/ped path separated from the road and adjoining bikeway by a 3-foot buffer and fence would have required an additional 4 feet of right-of-way. The cost is an estimated $3.3 million. Annual maintenance on both projects would cost between $14,500 and $19,200.
One of the more important questions Mayor Mary Waterman-Philpot raised was how to separate the experienced from inexperienced cyclists.
Walker simply said the advanced cyclists using Rocky Hill for recreational biking have little interest in using the pedestrian/bike trail.
“Based on all the consultation we had with the advanced cyclist group, … most advocated for this project and most involved in the public consultation process…said they will not use [that path], they will utilize the roadway,” Walker said.
Former mayor of Exeter and avid cyclist Ted Macaulay spoke up during the meeting to shed some light from the cyclist perspective. He noted that difference between advanced and novice cyclists are practically defined by how comfortable they feel sharing the roadway and riding with traffic. Macaulay added that the walk/bike path is more for kids with training wheels.
Also, as a member of the Active Transportation Advisory Committee for the Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG), Macaulay said it is up to the County to do the maintenance.
Councilman Jeremy Petty asked about the cumulative half acre needed to make the 4 Creek’s design come to life. Walker noted all that is needed are slivers of property along the southern portion of the 3.35 miles of road.
“As far as the property owners are concerned, the primary objective was to prevent any on road parallel vehicular parking that could potentially interrupt with ongoing cattle and agriculture activities,” Walker said.
The plan recommended that all proposed parking and restroom facilities be provided off-site. Restroom facilities and additional parking may be developed at the south-east corner of Spruce Avenue and Rocky Hill Drive. According to 4 Creeks, the property owner intends to develop the site with neighborhoods serving commercial services, and is interested in making an agreement with the County to include public parking and restroom facilities in that development.
Exeter city manager Adam Ennis, along with Mayor Waterman-Philpot discussed their concern about crossing Rocky Hill at the top where it bends toward the summit. Ennis noted that the sight distance is very low, meaning that it is difficult to see around the corner.
“If you do a crossing there you might want to consider a push button with the lights down the hill a little ways because right at the top there isn’t much of a sight distance,” Ennis said.
Executive director of TCAG, Ted Smalley told the council that if they want to see the project move forward, they should formalize their intentions in a letter to the Board of Supervisors.
“I would recommend you write a letter to the [Board]…that this project should move forward, outlining those bullet points that this is a project, and not just an Exeter project, but it’s to the benefit of the whole county,” Smalley said.
Last month, during the initial presentation over Rocky Hill’s remodel, supervisor Kuyler Crocker, who represents District 1 encompassing the Exeter area, said the area was a great natural asset for the county to highlight. Albeit in need of safety improvements.
“This is something I initiated at the request of constituents,” Crocker said. “There have been fatalities on Rocky Hill. Some walk in the middle of the street and there have been quite a few cyclists versus pedestrian accidents.”
Earlier this month he noted in an interview with the Sun-Gazette that this is not going to be a project that spends 15 years on the backburner. Instead, he hopes it at least gets started in the next three years.
In order to design both options 4 Creeks held four outreach meetings in Exeter and Visalia to help narrow the design of the project. At the first two meetings held last August, attendees were surveyed about how often they use Rocky Hill Drive, what they use it for, and what kinds of improvements they would like to see.
Three-quarters (77%) of those surveyed said they used the road (driving, walking, or cycling) at least once per month, 42% used it at least once per week, and 6% used it daily. More than half (51%) said they used the road both weekdays and on the weekend. Just under half (47%) said they used the road for health and exercise and over a third (34%) said they used it for recreation. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63%) said they would like to see Rocky Hill Drive become a two-lane road and 19% said they would like a two-lane road with an adjacent trail. Sixty-two percent wanted public parking, 43% wanted washroom facilities, and 40% said they would like to see benches.
At a final public outreach meeting on Jan. 16, 2019 at Exeter City Hall, attendees selected Option 1 because Option 2 would put cyclists on the edge of the road and a scenic outlook, which could potentially attract illicit activity.