Almanac

News - September 22, 2010

Equestrians worry about culture, trail conflicts

by Dave Boyce

Equestrians from Portola Valley and nearby communities seem nettled, in part by the prospect of students frequenting a trail along the south side of Alpine Road, and in part by the prospect of a new charter for the town's Trails Committee.

The charter is scheduled for discussion by the Town Council on Wednesday, Sept. 22, at the council's 7:30 p.m. meeting in the Historic Schoolhouse at 765 Portola Road.

The Trails Committee allows equestrians and other trail users to communicate with the council and the community. But the committee has "lacked good representation from the full array of trail users in town, including hikers, parents of schoolchildren, dog walkers, cyclists and others," Mayor Steve Toben told The Almanac.

At the council's Sept. 8 meeting, a room full of equestrians complained about having not seen proposed revisions to the charter, including an emphasis on student use of trails. The council asked the committee for its own suggestions, which it provided on Sept. 14. The language singling out student priorities has been deleted, Mr. Toben said.

Other issues of equestrian concern include the trail around Town Center and the importance of horse culture to the town's ethic. Horses keep the parcels large and the atmosphere rural, the equestrians said.

Horses are a "keystone species" to the town's culture, which needs protection in a changing world, said former Trails Committee chair Mary Hufty, who agreed to speak to The Almanac on behalf of equestrians.

"People are so used to being the keystone species that they forget the impact that another keystone species might have," she added.

The trail

Students are at the heart of the Alpine Road trail matter. Though not on the council's agenda for Sept. 22, the dirt trail between Roberts market and the Alpine Hills Swim & Tennis Club may come up.

The town has tentative plans to resurface this trail with crushed rock, replacing the peppering of small rocks and possibly making it more inviting to students pulling wheeled backpacks: more roll, less bounce.

For Corte Madera Middle School students, this trail is a natural route to the Alpine Hills club for after-school sports lessons or to meet family members. It is one of several trails identified by a coalition of residents as safe routes to and from school. The idea: more students walking and biking to school and fewer being hauled around by their parents.

But having more students on this trail might create tensions with equestrians. The stretch across from Roberts is particularly high and narrow. It's fenced on one side and bordered on the other by an abrupt, steep grassy slope about 10 feet high. A spooked horse could get out of control and go plunging down the slope and on to the road.

Bikes are another complication. While they are not allowed on this trail, kids bike there anyway. How would they respond to a smoother surface?

There is a competing safety issue: The other side of Alpine Road has an asphalt trail, perfect for rolling backpacks. But to get to the club, students would have to cross Alpine at Portola Road and re-cross at Golden Oak Drive, where the crosswalk has blind curves in both directions and traffic traveling at 35 mph or more.

"I really believe (the Golden Oak crosswalk) is the most dangerous area we have in all of town," Councilman Driscoll said in an interview.

Something's got to give. For equestrians who stable their horses east of Los Trancos Road, the Alpine Road trail is a vital link to Windy Hill and Coalmine Ridge, Ms. Hufty noted.

If there are known times when students are likely to be on the trail, the equestrians could agree to avoid the trail then, Ms. Hufty said. Students should be educated about equestrian safety concerns, she added.

In an interview, Mayor Toben noted just such a compromise as a way forward. The bunches of cyclists who regularly crowd Alpine and Portola roads have published their schedules on the town's website to let equestrians know when they're coming through. "The equestrians were thrilled," Mr. Toben said. "That's how one shares a community resource."

Necessity drove this case. In November 2009, two horses on Portola Road panicked and galloped off with a group of northbound cyclists. The cyclists did not slow down, according to three accounts of the incident.

One equestrian was immediately thrown to the road and suffered a broken bone; the other rider, who was reportedly pleading with the cyclists to stop, managed to stay mounted until the whole group came to an uphill section and the horses slowed.

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