The old-timers like to talk about the halcyon days of Payson -- a time before Wal-Mart and street lights, when the commute to the Valley was a bumpy daylong ride on a dirt road. As land disappears to development, they say, Payson has lost the rural identity so many residents remember or came in search of.
That feeling is what the proposed Community Trails System strives to restore.
"Although we're surrounded by the vast Tonto Forest, it's really underutilized for our citizens," said Payson Town Councilor Andy Romance, the biggest proponent of the program.
The Community Trails System is rooted in a trails master plan that was adopted in 1998. The original program, much like Romance's proposal, set out to distinguish existing trails and establish new paths. But only pieces of the plan were implemented, and town priorities relegated it to a shelf where it collected dust.
Romance said he saw an opportunity this past summer to resurrect the old plan and formalize a fresh, multifaceted approach. The firebreak around the perimeter created a natural green space, establishing the foundation of an urban trails system.
His idea parallels a nationwide trend toward creating green space and using the natural resources of a community. The National Smart Growth Council -- a bipartisan coalition of national legislators, business, labor, government and civic leaders -- work together to influence smart growth policies.
Smart growth reaches beyond water conservation and housing development. It addresses neighborhood livability, better access, less traffic, affordable housing, lower infrastructure costs and open-space preservation.
Romance's plan is based on a "wagon-wheel" format. A system of urban pathways and pedestrian-friendly streets serve as the spokes. This network melds into the "wheel" -- the firebreak. From there, trailhead and access points hook up to established trails that lead to other destinations. The plan attempts to improve pedestrian and bicycle traffic, provide horse areas and generally facilitate access to residential areas, commercial centers and the national forest.
To save tax dollars, Romance has asked town staff, specifically the streets, parks and fire departments to consolidate efforts.
"They have to work together," he said.
Here are some of the plan's features:
- Unpaved interior trail system that uses natural ditches instead of curbs and gutters to control stormwater runoff and improve recharge.
- Recreation opportunities that meet the fitness level of all its users.
- Safer streets for pedestrians and bicyclists with features that slow vehicle speeds.
- Payson-style, common signage and trail maps available around town.
"This is an opportunity to give Payson an identity," Vice Mayor Tim Fruth said.
Dr. Alan Michels, a local physician, is a longtime advocate of an urban trails system.
"This is a huge issue and it's something we all need very much," he said.
Michels' support of community trails is bolstered by medical studies.
The American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people who cycle or walk on community trails at least once a week are twice as likely as people who rarely use such trails to get the recommended amount of daily exercise.
Of the 3,717 adults who participated in the study, 24 percent said they used community trails at least once a week. According to another study released in the American Journal of Health Promotion, residents who have an established urban green space in their city are more likely to exercise than people who don't.
Romance has suggested seeking federal, state and local funding sources, such as the state's Heritage Fund, Arizona Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
Mayor Bob Edwards also asked staff to coordinate buy-in from local recreational groups.
Fruth said he wanted a formal plan ready for council approval in 90 days or a staff progress report within 60 days of Nov. 2
Mary McMullen, interim parks and recreation director, said planning is still under way, and the group will have something ready for council consideration by its deadlines.
For more information about community development programs, visit: www.smartgrowthamerica.org.