Ellsworth will seek money to extend popular trail despite concerns over having to plow it

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Jun. 23—Ellsworth city councilors on Monday decided to apply for a state grant that would fund the extension of a popular paved walking path south from Birch Avenue to Main Street, even though some said they weren't keen on having to start plowing the path in winter.

The Maine Department of Transportation would require that the city maintain the path in the winter — i.e. keep it relatively free of snow and ice — for 20 years if it helps to fund the project, which is projected to cost about $500,000. Another possible phase of the extension project — which would lengthen the path farther south from Main Street to the western end of the Down East Sunrise Trail, next to the Comfort Inn on High Street — could cost around $1.5 million, city officials have said.

Councilor John Philips said that having to plow the path every winter for 20 years could add a substantial amount to the city's plowing budget. He said he likes the idea of extending the path but the city might be better off coming up with the initial $500,000 on its own and not plowing it in winter — which would continue to allow cross-country skiers and snowshoers to use it.

"It's an additional $1.1 million over 20 years" to plow it through each winter, he said, referring to a scenario in which the public works department would hire an additional employee to help plow the path and all the city's sidewalks in winter.

The grant from the Department of Transportation's pedestrian and bicycle program would be for $400,000, with the city contributing $100,000 to the project. Those funds would cover designing and engineering the extension of the path from Birch Avenue to Main Street, and then the construction of that section. There would be funds left over to help pay for initial design and engineering work on the second phase south of Main Street.

The city currently does not remove snow and ice from the existing portion of the path, which was built in 2011 from Birch Avenue to North Street, but if it is offered and accepts the grant it will be required to plow the entire length of the path. The path is 1.3 miles long now and, when extended to Main Street, will be 1.7 miles long. If it is extended again south of Main Street to the Down East Sunrise Trail, the entire length of the city path would be roughly 2 miles.

The Down East Sunrise Trail, built on an old rail bed, is a multi-use trail that people on foot or with ATVs, snowmobiles, skis and bicycles can use to travel nearly 90 miles between Ellsworth and Pembroke in eastern Washington County. Motorized vehicles are not allowed on the city's walking-biking path that would be connected to the Down East Sunrise Trail.

Councilor Marc Blanchette, who lives next to the city path and uses it frequently for exercise, has been an advocate for extending the popular path, saying it will continue to help local residents exercise and stay in shape and, at the same time, keep them away from cars and trucks on the city's roads. The money involved in extending and maintaining the path, he said, is "cheap money" compared to the cost of being in poor physical health.

"We don't have a safe passage from Main Street to Birch Avenue," Blanchette said. "It will help save people's lives and improve their health."

Lisa Sekulich, the city's public works director, told councilors that one advantage of the state grant is that it will help the city resolve the poor physical condition of Spring Street, which runs from Birch Avenue to Main Street and would be used in part for the path extension. The section of Spring Street between Park and Main streets is narrow, full of potholes, and has unresolved right-of-way issues, she said.

Bringing that section of Spring Street up to city standards for motor-vehicle traffic, she said, likely would cost a lot more than what the city and state would spend to convert it into a walking path extension.

"At some point, something has to be done with Spring Street," Sekulich said.

Even if the council commits to maintaining the path through each winter, the city may have some latitude about how it would maintain the path, and some flexibility of how to fund that maintenance. Janna Richards, the city's economic development director, said the city can use tax revenue generated from commercial development in the city to pay for path maintenance, rather than having homeowners foot the bill.

The council voted 6-1, with Gene Lyons opposed, to commit $100,000 in city funds to apply for the $400,000 state grant. It then voted 5-2, with Lyons and Philips opposed, to commit to maintaining the path through each winter if it receives the grant.

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