The decision to close the popular Pine Flat Recreation Area last year was supposed to save Fresno County money. Instead, it has the county on the wrong side of the federal government and bracing for a $100,000 bill from Washington.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is demanding that county officials clean up the 170-acre park along the Kings River, which had been run by the county on federally leased land. Army Corps officials say the property was not returned to its natural state, as it should have been, when the area closed in October.
The restoration will cost between $80,000 and $100,000, county officials say, an expense that the parks department can hardly afford as it struggles to provide services at 16 other parks.
If the county doesn't do the work by June 2014, the federal government has said it will do the work and bill the county accordingly. Either way, the county faces an extra cost it was trying to avoid at a park that, devoid of basic structures, it probably can't afford to reopen.
In November and December, county parks officials removed most of the portable campground and picnic facilities, what county Resources Manager John Thompson thought was a sufficient cleanup. But in a letter sent to the county last month, the Army Corps orders that much more be taken out: an entrance station, four restrooms, utility lines and some 60 concrete tables.
"Why do we want to totally destroy the area because then it's going to cost millions of dollars to get it back running, if we can ever do that," Thompson said.
The park was run as a partnership between the Army Corps and the county since 1955.
The recreation area sits just below the federally maintained Pine Flat Lake, about 37 miles east of Fresno in the Sierra foothills. It has been a longtime destination for local anglers and campers.
The area was closed after Army Corps officials complained that county managers allowed lapses in maintenance and public safety. Vandalism was on the rise and and at least two stabbings occurred at the site last year.
Army Corps officials told the county it needed to provide daily security and regular upkeep or the park would have to close. Looking at a $190,000 annual tab for such services, the county chose to close it.
Over the past four years, funding for parks has been cut in half as a result of countywide budget cuts, and no longer does each of the parks have dedicated staffing.
Restrooms are not cleaned as regularly, trails and sports fields go unmaintained and staff patrols have been cut at such parks as Kearney Park, Avocado Lake and Lost Lake Recreation Area.
Thompson said there's no money in this year's budget to do the cleanup required at Pine Flat, but he hopes to squeeze money out of next year's budget, which takes effect in July.
County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian said she doesn't understand why the feds aren't interested in keeping the facilities in place until the county has money to again operate Pine Flat.
"Maybe their intent is to make it never available again," she said. "If that is their intent, that is a shame."
Army Corps Park Manager Tom Ehrke said the structures at the park have been so heavily vandalized -- and are apt to deteriorate further with no staff on site -- that reviving the park is unlikely.
"It's not like somebody can easily come back and polish up those facilites," he said.
The best option now, Ehrke said, is to clear out the buildings and make the grounds open for hikers and anglers.
With Pine Flat closed, campers and fishermen still have the option of visiting the county's Choinumni Park campground about two miles downstream as well as two Army Corps campgrounds on the lake.
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