Flag Pole Hill: Photo by Sheryl Lanzel

Flag Pole Hill: Photo by Sheryl Lanzel

Controversy is brewing at Flag Pole Hill near White Rock Lake, where some residents want to develop an existing but informal series of nature trails, improving access for hikers and cyclists.

Opponents say the plan is destructive to the habitat and intrusive to the surrounding neighborhood.

After weeks of debate among neighbors, the City of Dallas Park and Recreation Department recently decided to take matters into its own hands.

The terrain in question winds through a roughly 10-acre plot of prairie and forested parkland northeast of Flag Pole between White Rock Trail, Lanshire and Shoreview.

As it is, horseback riders, with a few exceptions, have the crude trail system to themselves; some hikers who don’t mind braving mosquitoes and poison ivy also enjoy the pathways.

Prompted by petitions from potential trail users, the Park and Recreation Department in the coming months plans to upgrade these trails, widening and clearing some that wind through the trees.

Oscar Carmona, the assistant director of the park department, insists there are “not going to be any new paths built, and there won’t be any disturbance to vegetation or wooded areas.”

The park department might protectively reduce human accessibility in other areas — “nurse some of the paths back to a natural state,” as he puts it, if they are unnecessary or disturbing areas that are “environmentally sensitive.”

Areas heavy with poison ivy are a concern.

“We might just try to bypass those altogether and try to get those areas to grow back up to what they used to be,” he says, adding that volunteers might be asked to pull patches of poison ivy to improve footpaths in areas where the plant is less likely to grow.

In order to accommodate users with disabilities and provide access for people with strollers, the useable trails will be raked out and widened to approximately 18-24 inches, Carmona says, and then covered with natural groundcover, like leaf litter or dirt.

The city also will correct any erosion problems that might be causing damage to the pathways.

“In those areas we might put in a water bar or some steps or something,” Carmona says. “If we do that, it’ll be natural, like maybe decomposed granite or some logs or something.”

The city plans to work with a trail-building organization on the project. Carmona says the park department has had “some good initial conversations with Groundwork Dallas.” Volunteers also may be invited to help with initial labor, as well as future maintenance.

This plan has evolved over several months and is still a work in the early stages.

It started back in November, when White Rock-area neighbor Ken Coutant approached the city with a request to expand the existing network of trails in the park.

Coutant has lived near White Rock Lake for 26 years, and he says he regularly runs, hikes and bikes at Flag Pole Hill. While using the primitive foot trails already available, he “came up with the idea to expand the trail system into the trees on the northeast corner of the park.”

He wanted to do the labor himself with a group of friends. His hope was to enhance the current foot trails and create new ones by raking out the underbrush. The trails would be about 12-inches wide and no trees would be removed, he said.

He already had the approval of his neighborhood, the White Rock Valley Neighborhood Association, and the park department told him he had to earn the approval of the White Rock Task Force as well. Coutant took his proposal before the task force and received its stamp of approval.

The city also required him to host an online petition to gather the signatures and addresses of 1,000 neighbors, which he did, and he quickly received at least 382.

But when neighbors got wind of the proposal through the online petition, some were not happy about it. Then the task force first learned Coutant planned to make the pathways into multi-use trails, more friendly for mountain bikers as well as hikers (technically, bicycles are already allowed on the trails; according to the city code, only motorized vehicles are not allowed on park grounds. Bicycles are classified as vehicles by Texas code, but they are not motorized and therefore are allowed on park property).

In May, task force leadership asked Coutant to once again go before the task force.

Coutant explained he still wanted 12-inch dirt trails, but he wanted them to be multi-use trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, similar to the dirt trails at Harry Moss Park. In fact, he helped build the trails at Harry Moss Park through Dallas Off-Road Bicycle Association (DORBA), which he emphasized would not be heading up the Flag Pole Hill project because the area was too small to be worth DORBA’s time. Instead, he would be the lead on the project — taking responsibility for the initial labor and the upkeep (any weed eating and the removal of downed timber after storms and the like).

During the task force meeting, several neighbors presented their concerns. Some were worried about the wildlife within the largely untouched area. Neighbors who live on Shoreview and whose houses back up to the property in question were concerned new trails could possibly lead users straight to their backyards. The task force called for another vote and then proceeded to revoke its previous approval.

Coutant says he didn’t know where to go from there. What he saw as a public service, others saw as a threat to what was already available at Flag Pole Hill. Neighbors who ride horses on the paths expressed specific concern about the prospect of more bicyclists using the trails. “Horses and bicycles don’t mix,” says neighbor Patty-Joan Hines, who has been patrolling the area on horseback for decades. “This is a horse trail. We need some protection,” she insists. “Horses made these trails.”

At the end of May, the Park and Recreation Department announced it planned to take over the project.

“We thought it would be within our best interest to take the lead on this,” Carmona says.

“We always saw the need to somewhat enhance those trails out there, then once we started to get some feedback from people who were both for and against it, we decided we’d be able to control it a lot better if we just manage it ourselves and focus on those areas that already exist and not build new trails.”

He says Coutant and people like him are “more than welcome to join as volunteers.”

East Dallas neighbor and neighborhood activist Ted Barker isn’t satisfied with the city’s plan, saying there “continues to be some shifting on what is planned.”

Hines says she believes the city’s claim to simply enhance the current trails and not add any new ones is a “smokescreen.”

“That makes no sense,” she says. “If that’s the case they shouldn’t be doing anything to it.”

But there’s a chance the Parks and Recreation Department will actually ban bicyclists from using the trails, which is exactly what Hines wants.

Once the property dries out after the heavy rains, a city employee will visit the site with a GPS unit to map out the current trails. Then maintenance will begin sometime this summer, possibly August. After the trails are updated, the Park and Recreation Department will determine whether or not bicycles should be allowed on the trails.

“We are really going to have to wait and see what our end result is and see what that trail can support,” he says. “If it’s an ecosystem where you don’t want a lot of users, then we can limit it to pedestrians and equestrian only. But that’s going to take some research on our end.”