Plans to expand the Dragoon Gulch Trail recreation area on the outskirts of downtown Sonora are under way thanks to a federal grant through President Barack Obama's sweeping health care reform law.

City officials have been meeting with the Tuolumne County Public Health Department and other local government agencies to develop a blueprint that will outline future development on the site.

The Sonora City Council scheduled a special meeting for Sept. 24 to consider authorizing City Administrator Tim Miller to execute an agreement between the city and consulting firm that will help develop the plan.

"This means we're one step closer to providing more recreation trail facilities in the city," said city Community Development Director Rachelle Kellogg.

Funding for the project comes from a $237,000 "community transformation grant" the public health department received through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, informally referred to as "Obamacare."

The county has the opportunity to receive the same award every year for the next five years depending on the sustained funding of the Affordable Care Act, according to officials.

The Community Transformation Grant Program, administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, supports community-level efforts to reduce chronic diseases and promote healthy lifestyles. According to the CDC website, about $70 million in grants has been awarded to communities across the nation with a population of 500,000 or less.

The city is due to receive $50,000 of that grant for developing the expansion plan through a subrecipient agreement with the public health department approved by the City Council at a meeting in June.

The Dragoon Gulch Trail, a 2.5-mile loop off North Forest Road and near the old Sonora Community Hospital, was developed over a six-year period between 2002 and 2008.

City officials estimate about 100 people use the trail every day, not including school athletic groups that use it for training, and the response from the community has been mostly positive, Kellogg said.

The city initially used about half of a $500,000 state grant to purchase 35 acres of oak woodland from retired physician Dr. Audrey Glover in May of 2002. Work on the first phase of the project was hoped to be completed by fall 2005, but more time-sensitive ventures took priority and the trail wasn't finished until May 2008.

In the meantime, the city used another $500,000 state Department of Parks and Recreation grant to purchase an adjoining 67 acres, which are going to be addressed under the proposed "Dragoon Gulch Trail Master Plan."

"This project will allow us to continue with the next phase of development of the property and give people an opportunity to comment on things they would like to see in the next part of the trail," Kellogg said.

Contract bids from various planning consultant agencies specializing in trail management were due yesterday. One will be selected at Monday's meeting to help develop the plan.

Although the money is specifically earmarked only for planning and engineering purposes, Kellogg said having a completed "master plan" will help the city compete for federal and state dollars.

"You're more competitive if you're ready to get started when looking for funding than if you're starting from scratch," Kellogg explained.

A committee composed of representatives from the city, public health department and Tuolumne County Transportation Council will meet to navigate the direction of the plan through its development, with the public being encouraged to share input as well, according to Kellogg.

Tuolumne County Public Health Officer Dr. Todd Stolp said the purpose of the trail project is to help create safe, active transportation options, one of the major tenets of the Community Transformation Program.

"We've designed our communities for four-wheeled vehicles and we've forgotten about significant dangers for pedestrians," Stolp said, adding that the latest numbers indicated about 11 percent of transportation-related injuries occur to pedestrians while only about 2 percent of total funding goes toward developing pedestrian facilities.

"It's just not something we factor when transportation projects are announced, but that attitude is changing," he said.

Stolp said the goal of the project is to engineer a wider trail that extends to the Sonora High School campus to encourage walking to school, as `well as providing more access points to other shopping and recreational opportunities in the city.

"Our communities are still promoting the top two causes of death: tobacco consumption and obesity," Stolp said. "It's time to change our communities to accommodate these new threats to our health, and that's the purpose of this plan."

The remaining $187,000 from the original federal grant will be used to revamp the county's General Plan to evaluate future planning policies for their effects on public health, Stolp said.

Sonora Mayor Hank Russell called the Dragoon Gulch Trail a "real asset" to city residents and looks forward to having a more than 100-acre park in a city with a total population of only about 4,600 residents.

"It's a nice, healthy walk right now and I never fail to run into people on the trails, so to have it expanded with twice the walking area would be a real plus for the city," he said.

Sonora resident Bob Hohne expressed similar sentiments Tuesday while walking the trail, which he tries to do at least once a week.

"It's great. It's close. The dogs like it and it seems to be well maintained," he said. "I'd love to see it expanded."

PUBLIC MEETING: Sonora City Council, special meeting, 3 p.m., Sept. 24, to consider a contract related to the Dragoon Gulch Trail expansion plan.