The Billings Parks and Recreation Department welcomed public comments Wednesday on its Coulson Park master plan as drafts move toward development.
Residents were invited to speak during the department's regular board meeting and during a meeting downtown at MoAV Coffee.
Coulson Park on the Yellowstone River is on of the site of the area's first township and features a boat ramp and some fishing access, but during the past few years has become overgrown.
A resident of Charlene Street, which borders Coulson Park, expressed concerns about the one-way access to the park if there’s an increase in visitors. Another resident feared the road would be paved and turn into a “race track" for people accessing the park.
Charlene Street is the only access by car, but planners are hoping to increase the bike and pedestrian connections to the park.
Future plans to expand the Interstate 90 bridge over the Yellowstone river would not allow for a separate car ramp, but planners are considering adding a bike and pedestrian route on the bridge to connect Coulson to Four Dances Park, said Eric Meadows senior associate of DHM Design, the landscape architecture firm designing the park.
A car connection from the I-90 bridge to the north part of Coulson Park would likely not be possible, unless the city of Billings foots the bill for expansion.
The unique layout of the 50-acre park has prompted planners to plan for possible structures, interpretive centers, play areas or a possible bike track to be on high ground, away from the river’s natural flood plain.
Little to nothing will likely be done to alter the natural river bank, Meadows said.
Access to the park, either too much or too little, was the hot-button issue during the board meeting. Parks board member Lew Morris felt the park might not have enough access for seniors or people with disabilities.
“The old saying ‘build them and they will come,’ doesn’t apply here,” Morris said.
Parking in the area is limited too, unless more is developed, and planners are shying away from building more, Meadows said. Depending on where sites end up in the final draft, people may have to walk a fair distance to get to sites or activities.
Three lots have been planned, one in the middle of the park, and one on the south and north ends of the park. Meadows didn’t know how many actual parking spaces that would be.
Other areas of high importance aside from access, based on results from online surveys, and a public outreach effort by the department, showed that the most important issues for Billings’ residents were trails to the park, river health and access, and bike paths or a bike track.
All four preliminary designs have some sort of bike track, or bike skills course. And DHM Design planners were trying to "find a balance" for those excited about a proposed amphitheater and a smaller, local concert or performing arts venue, Meadows said.
Considering access, parking, constraints relative to the pipelines, and flood plains, an amphitheater or a band shell with seating, "I don’t think that’s starting to achieve that balance for people who want a lighter approach," he said. However, a space for local bands, or something able to hold a Shakespeare in the Parks-type entertainment might be doable. A parking space for food trucks, or vendors close to the amphitheater could also be likely, Meadows said.
The master plan for the park is currently still in draft, but park planners are hoping to have a proposed draft by September, and present it to the city council by October.
Development for the park, which has sat largely undeveloped for years, has been funded by a $90,000 grant from Big Sky Economic Development, and some money from the settlement for the Exxon oil spill near Laurel in 2011.
Michael Whittaker, director of the park's department, said he's hoping the plan will be buttoned up by the end of the year, and development started by May.