Pennington

Supporters of a bike trial project in Tahlequah have stated there are not many safe places to ride bikes. Riding his bike along the sidewalk of Norris Park is Heath Pennington.

The city's financial burden may bring to a halt a proposed dream bike trial many local residents have supported.

Last year, Tahlequah city councilors accepted a lease bid from Tahlequah Trails Oklahoma Earthbike Fellowship to spearhead plans for a trail system on 65 acres of surplus land owned by the city, adjacent to Diedrick Lane. The council also voted to purchase an additional 40 acres west of the proposed bike trail acreage, which City Planning and Development Director Clint Johnson said would be used to access the trail.

However, during the Nov. 4 council meeting, the board unanimously agreed to settlements for three lawsuits filed against the city regarding bike trails and the purchase of property.

One piece of litigation, filed in September 2018 by attorney Brian Duke, requested an injunction to prohibit the title transfer of 40 acres west of a proposed bike trail area that would be used to access the trail. The suit claimed that in August, defendants Darrell James and Sadhna Vijay Williams entered into a contract with the city to sell a 40-acre tract next to the 65 acres.

"Although the city was aware acquisition of additional property would be necessary to develop the 65 acres for public use, neither the negotiations for the purchase of this property, or the necessity for its acquisition to develop the 65 acres, was announced to the public prior to issuing the RFP," the suit stated.

In August 2018, the plaintiff entered into a subordinate contract with the Williamses to buy the 40 acres for $100,000, stating that if the existing primary contract failed to close, this secondary contract would become primary.

The suit claimed that the city's conduct, the feasibility study and its determination that additional property would be necessary, along with its failure to disclose pertinent information, were the result of unauthorized actions by the city council and Johnson, and beyond the scope of their authority to act on behalf of the city.

It also claimed those actions were taken in contravention to the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act.

As a result of those violations, the lawsuit claimed the primary contract was void and unenforceable.

A third lawsuit was filed against the city, with the defendant seeking to void land purchases involving the 65-acre bike trail area because they were "done in secret." The lawsuit was filed in October 2018 on behalf of the Watershed Safety and Preservation Association, which also consists of owners of property near the 65-acre tract of land.

Ward 2 Councilor Dower Combs made a statement during the Nov. 4 City Council meeting before a motion was made on the settlement.

"My goal has always been to do the right thing for Tahlequah, economic development and tourism," he said, adding that generating revenue through sales tax has been a priority. "[I want to make] Tahlequah a place that is better for our children and grandchildren to live in."

He told the board he will continue pursuing that goal, and one thing he always asks himself before making a decision is whether it's going to be good for Tahlequah.

"I'm still a firm believer and supporter in this plan that we set forth on this property we've got some litigation with. However, due to the cash constraints, I feel it best at this time that we look somewhere else for another opportunity," he said. "We have the opportunity to put a large sum of money back in the city. So my motion would be to accept a settlement agreement as is and authorize the mayor to sign it."

Mayor Sue Catron praised Combs on his commitment to the city - especially with something he had deemed as the "most exciting projects that are just on the horizon."

Lori Enlow, president of Tahlequah Trails Association, said that while she was surprised and disappointed the decision was made, the group plans to proceed forward with the project.

Dave Rogers, TTA vice president, echoed Enlow's sentiments, and said he was also surprised by the city's actions.

However, he said that while the decision has put everything up in the air, he will remain optimistic.

"As of now, everything has been hush-hush, and there may have been an offer put on the property," he said. "I'll know more at a later time."

Catron said she would have to consult with City Attorney Grant Lloyd before she discussed details on the lawsuits and settlements. She confirmed that the city isn't going to sell the property.

Enlow and Rogers agreed their focus is to figure out the lease agreement they have with the city. Rogers said the five-year lease hasn't been broken, yet.

"We want to bring in an all-purpose trail to this area because we have nothing here," said Rogers. "We are missing the boat on outdoor activities."

The total amount from the settlement that can be put back into the city coffers is yet to be discussed, and a response from Lloyd was not returned by press time.

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