A weed-infested patch of mostly empty land in southeast Fresno, conditionally donated by the National Park Service to the city about 10 years ago, is the focus of a developing spat between the federal government, the city and a community organization that wants Fresno to build a regional sports park on the site.
The former U.S. Department of Agriculture research site, 49 acres on the east side of Peach Avenue south of Butler Avenue, is home to a handful of abandoned buildings and a community garden.
When the city applied for and accepted the land, one of the conditions was that the site be developed for park or recreational uses. But except for putting in the 3 1/2 -acre garden where community members can grow fruits and vegetables, the city has thus far done little to advance the intended purpose of the land.
Now, the Park Service is making noises about taking the land back if the city doesn’t follow through, and a recently formed community group has emerged to try to tackle what Fresno has not.
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City Manager Bruce Rudd says Fresno doesn’t have the estimated $30 million or more that it would take to realize the vision of a park and sports complex at the site – and, he adds, neither does the Southeast Fresno Regional Park and Soccer Complex Authority.
In a brief presentation Thursday to the Fresno City Council, Jose Leon-Barraza – CEO of a joint powers authority that includes the city of Sanger and the Malaga County Water District – urged the city to join the organization and become a partner in developing a soccer park on the property.
There are a lot of groups that would like to see a park and soccer facilities there.
Jose Leon-Barraza, CEO, Southeast Fresno Regional Park and Soccer Complex Authority
“There are a lot of groups that would like to see a park and soccer facilities there,” Leon-Barraza said in a news conference before his council appearance. But in order for that to happen, he said, “we need the city.”
Leon-Barraza pointed to numerous studies citing the need for more parks and green space in the southern reaches of Fresno and expressed dissatisfaction that the city has invested in other parks while sitting on the Peach Avenue property for 10 years.
He also accused the city of “misappropriation of funds” by using a $1.3 million insurance settlement – received after a building on the property burned down – to make repairs at other park facilities around the city.
Leon-Barraza and Pastor Juan Saavedra of two United Methodist churches in Fresno seized upon a passage in a July 1 letter from the Park Service to Rudd: “We would like to engage a conversation with you regarding the disposition of the $1.3 million insurance settlement received by the city for fire damage to a building that was conveyed with the Peach/Butler property,” wrote Ray Murray, chief of the Park Service’s partnership programs in the Pacific West Region.
“Since any proceeds from the property were to have been directed to the realization of the recreation program of utilization there, those funds should be directed to park and recreation development needed at the Peach/Butler property.”
Saavedra was less diplomatic, describing the use of the money on other facilities as “thievery.”
Rudd countered by pointing to the conditions of the actual agreement between Fresno and the Park Service. In a letter Friday to Murray, Rudd pointed out that insurance settlements are not considered revenue under the contract. “Revenues are defined as those received ‘through concession agreements, use permits, or other fees generated by activities on the property (and) shall be used only for the implementation of an approved Program Utilization or the operation of park and recreation facilities and programs on the property,’ ” Rudd wrote.
The Park Service’s letter urges the city to join the joint powers agreement with Sanger and Malaga. “If the city of Fresno chooses not to fulfill its original intent to develop the property for public park and recreational use, we request that you be prepared to willingly deed the property to an appropriate grantee that we approve to pursue the intended park and recreation use of the property under the current deed conditions,” Murray wrote.
Leon-Barraza said his joint powers authority applied to the Park Service in April to seek a donation of the property for a park and soccer complex. “The National Park Service authorized us to submit a proposal because Fresno has not developed a park as conditioned when the city got the land 10 years ago,” he said. “Not a single tree has been planted on that site.”
Rudd asserted that despite appearances, the city has spent plenty of money on the site. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve spent well over $1.4 million out there, if you count the $480,000 plan for a facility that we had no way in hell to build,” he said.
The 2009 park plan, paid for with money from a $32 million city park bond issue, included a vision for a sports complex with two soccer fields, a baseball field, a pair of swimming pools and other facilities that carried an estimated price tag of about $25.9 million to build – and that didn’t count annual maintenance and operations, or the financial effects of inflation. The other costs cover such expenses as demolition, lead abatement, operating the community garden and simple maintenance of the property.
The city acknowledges the need for more new parkland in the southern part of the city, but officials also pointed to a list of deferred needs and repairs at existing parks all over the city.
We’re not arguing that it wouldn’t be a great project. It’s just a fiscal reality.
Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd
“We’re not arguing that it wouldn’t be a great project,” Rudd said Friday. “It’s just a fiscal reality.” Development fees charged to builders on new homes in the community were expected to provide money to repay the $32 million in park bonds, but when the real estate bubble burst in the late 2000s, those fees started coming up short of covering the debt service, forcing the city to dip into its general fund to make up the difference.
It’s no particular skin off the city’s nose if the federal government wanted to rescind its donation of the property to the city, Rudd said, except for a provision in which Fresno accepted the land as is, sight unseen, without any requirement for an environmental assessment of potential hazards from its years of use as an agricultural experimentation site.
“We have no idea what’s under there,” Rudd said. But if the city was to return the property to the Park Service, Fresno would be required to perform an environmental review – and correct any problems that might be found.
“I wouldn’t have inked that deal,” Rudd said of the donation agreement, which was made before he had any role in management of the city’s parks. “We didn’t require that (an environmental assessment) of them when they gave it to us.”
Instead of a park, the city has been in discussions with the State Center Community College District over the potential for a vocational training center at the site. If those discussions mature, Rudd said, the city would work with the U.S. General Services Administration – which oversees federal government-owned real estate – for potential transfer of the property from the city to the National Park Service, then to the U.S. Department of Education, and then to the college district.
That doesn’t sit well with Leon-Barraza and his associates, who have collected letters of support for their NPS application from Fresno State, Fresno Pacific University, the State Center district and other agencies as well as local soccer organizations. Their continued desire and goal is a park and soccer fields. “And we will not take no for an answer,” Leon-Barraza said.