By Susan Drumheller
The city of Ponderay announced Dec. 22 plans to use local option tax revenue to purchase waterfront property, expanding public access to Lake Pend Oreille.
At 2 p.m. on Jan. 1, 2022, the city will open the gate at the current Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail’s end and celebrate the purchase agreement with a public ribbon-cutting and party, complete with hot chocolate and a warming fire on the waterfront.
The property is just over an acre in size with 100 feet of lake frontage, and sits between current city of Ponderay waterfront property and “Black Rock,” the site of a former lead smelter.
The city has been talking with the Wolters family about the potential purchase for years, but until recently, it was premature, explained Erik Brubaker, Ponderay’s director of community development and parks.
“We needed to know that we could afford the property and also that we were likely to see clean-up of the neighboring mining contamination at Black Rock,” Brubaker said.
The passage of the penny tax in 2019 and the award of an Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields Multipurpose Grant to clean up the smelter site made the purchase possible, Brubaker said.
“The voters expressed lake access was a top priority and the city is making good on that promise,” he said.
Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s work on the EPA-funded environmental assessment has shown that Wolters’ property is not contaminated with lead or other heavy metals.
So far, the penny tax is raising approximately $2.5 million per year and will expire in 2025. The funds are designated for lake access and for the Field of Dreams sports complex, which is currently under design and development.
The Wolters purchase won’t be completed until later in 2022 but, in the interim, the Friends of the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail secured a public easement from Wolters, which allowed time for the city to finalize the purchase.
“We are absolutely thrilled to be celebrating the expansion of the Bay Trail and to be contributing to increased public access to the lake,” said Dallas Cox, president of the Friends of the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail, a private non-profit organization.
“One of the most common questions we get from trail users is, when will that gate be coming down?” he said. “Well, now we have an answer: New Year’s Day!”
Cox thanked the businesses and organizations that sponsor the Bay Trail Fun Run for helping raise the $50,000 for the easement, even when the event had to be cancelled due to COVID.
“The voters, the supporters of the trail, city officials and Idaho DEQ — we all need to pat each other on the back for making this happen,” Cox said.
The purchase does more than just extend the trail; its location adjacent to Black Rock will also improve access for cleanup operations.
Black Rock and the upland property are privately owned, but the city is also in discussions to purchase that property. The city already owns property on the east side of Black Rock, which has historic mining contamination as well.
The city’s $800,000 EPA brownfields grant can only be used for cleanup on publicly owned property, however. A second gate, separating the newly acquired property and Black Rock, will remain until the city owns the property and it is safe for public use.
The cleanup and property purchases are part of Ponderay’s Front Yard Project, which encompasses the brownfields cleanup and remediation of the shoreline for public recreation, but also the construction of a pedestrian and bike passage under the railroad tracks to provide access to the lake from Ponderay’s neighborhoods and commercial district.
The city received a $1.4 million federal BUILD planning grant in 2020, which will fund the design and engineering of the underpass, as well as environmental studies and necessary connecting infrastructure from Highway 200. The city recently awarded the contract to design and engineer the underpass to Coeur d’Alene-based Welch Comer Engineers.
Public outreach to solicit input on the underpass design and brownfield remediation plans will be forthcoming, Brubaker said. In the meantime, the public can learn about the Front Yard Project at cityofponderay.org/the-front-yard-project.
For now, city officials and Friends of the Bay Trail say it’s time to celebrate another milestone in creating a Front Yard for Ponderay that everyone can enjoy.
The “Toast the Trail” celebration takes place from 1:30-3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 1. Until the underpass is constructed, the only legal and safe access is from the Sandpoint end of the trail. The gate is a two-mile hike from City Beach in Sandpoint.
Party-goers are reminded to dress appropriately, and consider bringing poles or traction devices for their shoes in the event the trail is icy. If driving to the event, guests should plan to park at the Windbag Marina, City Beach or the Creekside Trailhead.