A Feb. 14 decision by the District of Sicamous council not to rezone close to 1 km of land along Mara Lake just means construction of the Shuswap-North Okanagan Rail Trail will start this year without it.

The potential 50 km rail trail will only stretch 49 km to Armstrong instead.

“The funding is in place so it’s time to get the work going,” project manager Phil McIntyre-Paul told iNFOnews.ca. “The first piece that was to get some of the work done was in the Sicamous and top of Mara Lake area.”

Now that work will have to start somewhere else.

“That somewhere else is literally 1,000 metres further south,” McIntyre-Paul said. “There was some slight mitigation work that was going to be done in that area. It really needs to be done before the spring freshet so, I suspect, with this delay, if they don’t come back and rezone it, it will be delayed months or a year so it won’t get done until next year, or whenever.”

The very northern end of the trail was never going to get built this year anyway. The rail trail will eventually start at Shuswap Lake but has to wait until the R.W. Bruhn Bridge, where Highway 1 crosses the Sicamous Narrows between Shuswap and Mara Lakes, is replaced.

The province is planning to widen a 1.9 km stretch of the highway to four lanes, including the bridge, at a cost of $224.5 million.

The project is in the final design stage. Utilities are currently being relocated but construction will not go to tender until later this year.

The Splatsin Development Corporation, which completed a 2 km test section of the Rail Trail near Enderby last year, is finalizing plans to start work on much of the 50 km trail this year.

READ MORE: Significant progress made on Shuswap North Okanagan Rail Trail

The trail is expected to run along the west side of Mara Lake but that land is not zoned to allow for a trail.

A public hearing was held in Sicamous on Feb. 14 to consider that change but council turned it down, partly due to concerns raised by property owners along the west side of Mara Lake over so-called crossing agreements because they have to cross the trail to get to their docks.

READ MORE: Sicamous council stops progress on Shuswap portion of rail trail

McIntyre-Paul said those are not actually crossing agreements. The docks are built into the rail trail’s right-of-way and that trail has to be raised about one metre in that area in order to reduce flooding during wet springs.

That means agreements have to be worked out on how that is to be done. But, without rezoning, no work can start on that section of the trail anyway.

There is no indication of when, or if, a new rezoning proposal will go back to Sicamous council.

In the meantime, work will start this year on much of the rest of the trail, particularly where it can be easily resurfaced.

But given the erosion along parts of Mara Lake and the Shuswap River, and the fact that mitigation work can only be done at certain times of the year, it could still be a couple of years before the trail is fully opened.

There are also issues around the two crossings of Highway 97 A.

One is at Grindrod where the speed limit is only 50 km/h and there is a sharp corner near the rail line. An agreement still needs to be reached with the Ministry of Transportation but McIntyre-Paul expects that to simply be a crossing light that residents there have wanted for a long time.

The other major crossing is near Stepney Road, north of Armstrong, where an overpass is required. Funding is not yet in place for that overpass so the hope is, once more of the trail is open, a fundraising drive will be able to bring in that needed money.

The continued opposition to the trail by the Mara Lake dock owners was a bit of a surprise to McIntyre-Paul.

“Everyone we’ve worked with and encountered have been saying: ‘Yeah, we really look forward to this being a greenway corridor outside of our back yard,’” he said. “That’s been the message we’ve heard.”

At the public hearing, the dock owners said they supported the rail trail but wanted their property rights protected first.

In November 2021, a group of them calling themselves the B.C. Dock Owners Coalition put out a press release claiming Mara Lake would be “industrialized for transit purposes,” the whole project “appears to be a sham” and the trail will become a “Commuter Train Mega-Project.”

READ MORE: 'Fake news': Shuswap lobby group calls rail trail project a 'sham'

“What we’re definitely hearing more of is folks coming back from other communities asking why is this taking us so long, why can’t we make that happen here?” McIntyre-Paul said. “The reality is, we can. It’s just that we’re small and rural and we have to work together. That’s the social geography. The good thing is, we’re doing it. Time and patience and being committed to staying with each other and saying: ‘Let’s work this out.’

“At this point, I’ve yet to see the mysterious ‘they’ who are really doing this secretly to try and stick it to local residents and community property owners. There isn’t anyone actively trying to ruin people’s adjacent property.”

The expectation is that, once the rail trail is completed to Armstrong, other paths will be created to connect it to the Okanagan Rail Trail that runs from Coldstream to Kelowna. Ultimately, the hope is to have one continuous trail from Sicamous to the U.S. border at Osoyoos and beyond.

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