Havre Daily News
A new walking path atop Bullhook Dike has brought with it increased traffic and vandalism, along with the concern that those using it could have their walk or bike ride interrupted by a plane falling from the sky.
Members of the Saddle Butte RC Club said they have always been concerned for the safety of pedestrians on the path, but with an increase in numbers comes an increase in the chances a person could be struck by a radio-controlled plane weighing several pounds and traveling at speeds in excess of 100 mph.
"The biggest concern is the safety issue," club vice president Chuck Evans said. "The walking path, in its current location, puts people at risk. It's a bad situation. With the limited amount of traffic that was here before, it hasn't been an issue."
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said that while he agrees there is a chance someone could be hit by a plane, it is just as likely that someone could get hurt while walking near Sixth Avenue Memorial Field during a softball game.
"Everything we do has a liability," Rice said. "I am safety conscious. It's not going to change if we move (the trail)."
Club members will meet with the Havre City Council's Parks and Recreation Committee tonight to discuss their proposal to move the path, which crosses land they lease from the city, so it would run along the south edge of the dike. They agree that moving the path won't alleviate their safety concerns. They plan to ask the city to consider posting signs to warn pedestrians of the danger. "At some point in time, there is going to have to be some signage in place," Evans said. "There are risks involved. There will have to be something to indicate that people are walking into an unsafe area."
Club member and past president Dave Keeley said the problem is that the trail, as it comes along the top of Bullhook Dam, is in the flight path of the small planes as they come in for landing. He said club members have always been mindful of pedestrians, but now there are more of them.
Keeley said one man last week was walking on the path and did not navigate the turn that brings walkers around the clubhouse. Instead, he walked right out onto the club's airstrip.
Keeley has one plane that weighs in at 16 pounds and is more than 7 feet in length. Another plane he owns has been clocked at 119 mph. The fastest models, he said, can reach speeds of 200 mph.
Though the planes can cost as much as $1,000, that doesn't mean they're fail-safe, he said. Pilots can lose control of the planes if radio contact is lost or if there is engine failure or another mechanical problem. If a person was walking along the dike and a pilot lost control, the results could be deadly, Keeley said.
"Can you imagine what a 5-pound plane going 100 mph would do to you?" he said. "These little airplanes will kill you."
The club has used the area since it negotiated a 20-year lease with the city in 1991. It was not informed of the changes before the path was built, Evans said.
"Normally, the person who owns the property would talk to the leaseholder before making changes to the property," he said. "We're trying to reach an amicable agreement with the city where we can all live with it. Our biggest concerns are public safety and traffic."
The group will ask the city to move the path in order to alleviate another concern: The path runs across the club's parking area. Evans said RVs and trucks that park there during the group's gatherings could damage the work the city has done on the path. The group also has large rollers and other equipment it uses to flatten its runway, which it now must drag across the path.
Rice said the vehicles and equipment will not cause damage.
"That's not going to hurt the walking path," he said.
Some club members say they wish the city had contacted them before the improvements were made.
Rice said in an interview that two representatives of the club, Bonnie Keeley and Essie Gebhardt, had met with him at City Hall and approved the changes before they were made. He also said the path is not new.
"It's always been there," he said.
Bonnie Keeley and Gebhardt said they met with the mayor after the changes were made, and they maintain that the path is a new addition to the dike.
"The road was there but there was never a path there," Bonnie Keeley said. "He never told us he was doing this. It wouldn't be so bad if he would have come and talked to us before and asked if we had any concerns."
She and Gebhardt met with Rice to discuss the possibility of adding a fence to the area, she said.
Gebhardt, the honorary "club mom," said the group was never told about the changes. Gebhardt served on the Havre City Council from 1984 to 1992.
"We did not know the path was going in," she said. "And besides maybe one of them, I do not believe one member of the (City Council) knew that it was going in. The RC people should have been notified so they could have had some input. The council should have been told."
Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick, who chairs the Parks and Recreation Committee, said he will work toward a compromise with the group. The committee will meet at 7 p.m. today in City Hall.
"We're going to try to get everything on the table and see what kind of compromise we can come up with," he said. "We should have talked with them before it was done. I didn't know the trail was going in until after the fact.
"If the project would have gone through the Parks and Recreation Committee, where we would have had more public input, a lot of these problems could have been avoided," he said.
Rice said he will work with the group to find a solution to the problem, but thinks it is unfortunate that the situation has reached this point.
"I think that a lot of people in Havre will agree that this (trail) is a good thing," he said.