Frankfort city commissioners not only voted Monday to ban bicycles on the 140 acres surrounding the Civil War battle site of Fort Hill but also requested an official investigation of how construction began on a multiuse trail in the park without city officials' knowledge.
The commission voted 3-2 to ban the use of all bicycles in Leslie Morris Park, in which sits the earthenwork site of Fort Hill. In more than an hour and a half of public comment leading up to the vote, citizens voiced their opinions on the merits and pitfalls of a multiuse trail, which would include the use of mountain bikes, in the woods below the historic Civil War site. Commissioners ultimately decided that only hiking, walking and pet use will be allowed in the park.
The decision came during a commission work session, commonly used for discussion but no formal action. Commissioners only recently allowed items that are "important or of urgency to the commission" to be eligible for votes in work sessions, said Mayor Bill May.
“I’m not saying it would shut the public out — we did advertise it as action may be taken,” he said of the possibility of a vote at Monday's work session. “But I know we did have folks make some comments about commissioners voting at work sessions.”
May and Commissioners John Sower and Scott Tippett cast the votes in favor of the bicycle ban. Commissioners Katrisha Waldridge and Eric Whisman dissented.
Sower made the initial motion, which called to reaffirm Fort Hill as a historic site in its entirety, to prohibit bikes and to specify that all trails be maintained for walking, hiking and pet use only.
"We talked at our last meeting about needing a real education about Fort Hill," Sower said. "We went through four hours of comment at our last meeting. I think we understand both sides. I think we need to move on one way or another."
Tippett seconded the motion and said that the public deserved an up or down vote on the future of the nearly complete bike trails.
"The democratic process is consummated by a vote," he said. "And we have not had a vote. We need a vote. It should be on record for the public to scrutinize."
It was the third time the controversial subject came up at a commission meeting and the second time that a vote was held on the matter. At the outset, some commissioners flirted with a moratorium on bike trails in the park. But commissioners delayed a vote at their last meeting in May, with the deciding vote coming down to Mayor May.
His vote again was the determining factor Monday.
"The most important thing is making sure we preserve our historic sites and we don't lose any more," May said. "But I'd like to come back and make sure our mountain bike folks have alternatives and better locations to ride those, especially for children."
Waldridge said it was purely a political decision and ironic that the commissioners who consider the site hallowed Civil War ground would allow pets to walk around and defecate on the site.
“I do hope people who are truly in support of this – Tippett – you do have plans to do something with Fort Hill and that next year that if I walk up there things are not grown over and things are well prepared,” she said. “If we decided to keep it historic, I expect great things from people on this city commission and those supporting it.”
Whisman said the site is underutilized and about two-thirds is in the downtown district. He said he was optimistic about the future with or without bike access to the historic park.
“This is a great asset for the downtown community beyond the rest of the neighborhood,” Whisman said. “A 120-acre site, we have the ability to do more things out there. We can broaden our minds and figure out what we can do. The community owns this site.”
Several citizens spoke during the public comment period on both sides of the issue. Those against allowing bikes honed in the historical significance of Fort Hill – 12 acres atop the 120-acre park – and the impact on the residential area at the hill’s foot.
Louis MClane, a resident of Blanton Acres neighborhood, said residents didn't feel like they were being heard.
“It’s all about the people that want to come here than the people that are already here that have put a lot of sweat equity in on this,” McClane said.
Supporters presented commissioners with a petition signed by more than 700 people — not all Frankfort residents. But some local residents expressed a need for the bike trail in downtown Frankfort rather than in an outlying area, such as Capitol View Park, that kids have to cross highways to access.
Katherine Mueller, a mother of a teenager, said that there is not much for her children and their friends to do in Frankfort and a downtown bike trail would be an attraction for people with children considering the town as a home.
“It’s young people-specific,” Mueller said. “What we need to do is focus on things to bring families with children here. Right now we are seriously lacking for things for them to do.”
One of the main issues to arise during the course of the bike trail debate was how the project came to be. City staff said they did not know until October that the multiuse trails were being built – some parts as an Eagle Scout project – after which they then began hearing numerous calls of opposition from historic preservation advocates.
By the end of the commission’s Monday meeting, commissioners instructed the city manager's office to begin an official review of the entire project.