Controversy over an informal trail to a Tacoma Narrows beach is threatening to delay a $1 million ravine repair project that engineers say must be finished this summer.
At a public hearing Wednesday, private property owners and public-access advocates agreed that an insurance company's plan to fix the washed-out ravine is a good one.
But they vehemently disagreed on who should be allowed to use a beach trail included in the plan.
Private owners whose property extends into the steep ravine, just north of the Narrows Bridge on the Gig Harbor side, want to restrict access to residents of their gated community.
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Opponents argue that the trail should be replaced as it was before an Oct. 20 storm, with access from the State Department of Transportation's right of way along Highway 16 - even though most of the trail would be on private land.
"The public has had access to that waterfront for 60 years," said Randy Boss, chairman of the Peninsula Park and Recreation District.
"That trail was established back in the 1940s, and it's unfair for them to say now, 'You guys are out of here because we built these condominiums here.'"
Boss testified in favor of the ravine repair, but he asked hearing examiner Stephen Causseaux to require that public access be reestablished.
If it is not, he said, he is prepared to go to court to see that it is.
"Challenging the process shoots ourselves in the foot," Boss said. "We have no desire to stop the improvement of the ravine. But at the same time, don't fix it at the expense of public access."
Several residents of the Shipwatch and Narrows View developments argued that the trail should be private, citing concerns about litter, liability and lack of parking.
"We don't want public access restored because it wasn't legal in the first place," said Tom Lerch, who has lived in the Shipwatch development since last May.
"It's not public and never has been."
The trail was destroyed Oct. 20 when run-off from the construction zone of the new Tacoma Narrows bridge surged through the ravine, carving it 40 to 50 feet deeper and threatening private homes above.
Engineers for Shannon & Wilson, the geotechnical firm hired by the insurance company, said fixing the ravine before winter rains start this fall is critical.
The cliff on the north side of the ravine has receded 16 feet since the initial damage on Oct. 20, engineers said, putting it dangerously close to Shipwatch homes.
Their plan entails building a new drainage system and hauling in 20,000 cubic yards of fill to restore the ravine's contours. They want to begin work on June 15 and say the major reconstruction will take about three months.
Linea Laird, manager of the State Department of Transportation's Narrows Bridge project, weighed in on the controversy Wednesday afternoon, saying her office had been contacted by a number of concerned residents who misunderstand the situation.
Laird emphasized that no public money is being spent to fix the ravine. She noted that, as a part of the Narrows project, the department has improved public beach access at another site on the Gig Harbor side of the channel and plans to do more work improving access on the Tacoma side.
The department paid Pierce County to pave a parking lot and trail at a county beach park about a mile south of the bridge. The department plans to open a bridge viewing station there in June.
Laird said the trail should not be referred to as a "public trail" because using it meant trespassing on private property.
"It wasn't a public facility," she said. "It was informal access that the public used. If the private property owners now want to withdraw that access, it is their right to do so."
Rob Carson, 253-597-8693