Originally published in The Bee on Feb. 10, 2013
Ask the average Fresnan how to get to the San Joaquin River, and you'll probably get a quizzical look.
A fair number of people have been to Lost Lake Park, but that's down the road near Friant. What about Fresno? When California's second-longest river flows into its fifth-largest city, hardly anyone notices.
That's not the case in Sacramento and Bakersfield, cities that have built extensive parkways that showcase their rivers. Sacramento's American River Parkway is 32 miles long. The Kern River Parkway through Bakersfield runs 20. Turn around after a mile, or go all day.
Fresno has nothing comparable. There's no place to bike along the San Joaquin, or spend a couple of hours strolling its banks. No convenient spot to launch a kayak or canoe.
The River West Open Space Area has the potential to change all that – if the much-delayed and hotly debated project ever gets built.
Four times larger than Woodward Park, River West encompasses 1,200 acres of undeveloped river bottom on both sides of the San Joaquin west of Highway 41. On the 450-acre Fresno side, it extends west until reaching a point just below Spano Park near Palm and Nees avenues.
The land is a combination of three properties purchased from private hands over the last decade by the San Joaquin River Conservancy, the state agency charged with helping Fresno get what those other cities have: a 22-mile riverside parkway stretching from Friant to Highway 99.
The parkway's asphalt backbone, the Lewis S. Eaton Trail, would extend about 2 miles into River West. And unlike the heavily used existing segment, built on a bluff that parallels Friant Road, this addition is actually on the river.
"When it comes about, River West will be the most beautiful and significant amenity that we have in the Fresno area, " said Andreas Borgeas, the recently elected Fresno County supervisor and former Fresno City Council member.
"We want to get this thing moving. Oh my gosh. It's been delayed long enough."
Bureaucratic red tape
Finding the money to build River West isn't the problem. Thanks to four statewide bonds, most recently 2006's Proposition 84, the San Joaquin River Conservancy is sitting on about $30 million that can be spent on capital improvements.
But since 2009, River West has been stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire thanks to a disagreement between two of the projects' main stakeholders: the Bluff Homeowners Association, a group of neighbors whose homes are nearby; and the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve, restore and educate the public about the river.
Parking lots and alignment of the Eaton Trail continue to be the main bones of contention.
The Bluff Homeowners are dead set against a parking lot in the river bottom that would be accessed through their neighborhood off Audubon Drive and were successful in getting it wiped off a project map released by the City of Fresno's Public Works Department in September 2011. The Parkway Trust contends the parking lot is essential to ensure adequate public access.
In addition, the Bluff Homeowners want the Eaton Trail to run as "near and along the river" as possible, where the trail also would be farther from their houses. Site plans favored by the Parkway Trust show the Eaton Trail closer to the bluff with unimproved hiking paths leading to the river.
Last fall, the two groups held a series of moderated meetings that included Borgeas and Fresno Project Manager Mark Johnson but failed to reach a resolution.
And now that River West is coming before the Fresno City Council on Thursday, the two sides have been galvanizing supporters and ramping up the rhetoric.
"(The current plan) effectively turns a regional amenity into a local park because the only people who would be able to access it are those who live within walking distance, " said Dave Koehler, the Parkway Trust's executive director.
To bolster that argument, the Parkway Trust has produced a series of videos of people saying they want access to the expanded trail system.
The inference is that the Bluff Homeowners seek to thwart access, which members say is absolutely false.
"All of those kinds of things that people want, that's what the neighborhood wants, too, " said Barry Bauer, owner of Herb Bauer Sporting Goods. "We want people to be able to jog along there, fish along there, ride your bike, watch birds. ...
"What we don't want is a bunch of indigents in our backyards and fire sweeping up the bluffs. Just basic public safety issues."
Industry has long trumped recreation along the San Joaquin, and River West bears these marks.
Most of the original riparian habitat was sacrificed long ago in favor of sand and gravel mining, and the river has been diverted into ponds that cover up old gravel pits. Some of these ponds are connected to the river, others aren't.
Dirt roads, overgrown trails and barbed-wire fences criss-cross the property. Levees, or what remains of them, are reinforced with junked cars. High-tension electrical wires hover in the distance. The hum of the freeway is audible, depending on the wind.
So don't picture Brad Pitt casting dry flies in "A River Runs Through It."
But nature has a way of battling back. Walking past the H Pond, a large body of water shaped like the letter, you may see waterfowl or snowy egrets. You may hear the screech of a red-tailed hawk. And, hold on a second, see that large bird perched in the alder tree? Whoa. It's a bald eagle.
Here's something else you might see: people. Yes, people. Just because open space hasn't been "improved" for public consumption doesn't necessarily mean it sits vacant.
You might see neighborhood residents walking their cocker spaniels while listening to music on pink headphones. You might see an acquaintance who works at one of the many Palm Bluff businesses out for a lunchtime run. You might see a lady lying near the river below Palm and Nees, dressed in filthy clothes with twigs in her dirty blond hair, who slurs profanities when you ask if she is OK.
Head to the other end of the property, near the Highway 41 overpass, and you might strike up a conversation with residents of the Wildwood Mobile Home Park. After a while, they might show how someone peeled back the chain-link fence so anyone can go in or out.
Melinda Marks, the San Joaquin River Conservancy's executive director, listens to these stories with a frustrated expression.
It's her job, using state money, to assemble the river parkway from Friant to Highway 99.
"I want to make those activities legitimate, " Marks said. "I want to have services like restrooms, water fountains and garbage cans, and I want some trees planted to provide shade.
"There just have been so many delays. ... It's been more than a year since the city has done anything."
Not so on the Madera side. In October, the Madera County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a master plan for River West-Madera that includes an extensive network of paved and unimproved trails, boat launches, picnic areas and two on-site parking lots.
If developers had gotten their way, Fresno's side of the river bottom would've been built out decades ago. A 1985 draft environmental impact report called for 1,500 houses, an 18-hole golf course, country club, marina and even private equestrian trails – all designed in English manor style.
How were residents of so-called Spano River Ranch supposed to access their homes? By taking Audubon to North Del Mar Avenue. and turning onto Riverview Drive.
Which also happens to be the same access road the Bluff Homeowners are fighting so hard to stop.
The proposed development would've resulted in 16,000 car trips per day. Which the Parkway Trust likes to point out, is significantly more than would be generated by an open space area.
"The roads in that neighborhood were designed to handle that type of capacity, " Koehler said.
Of course, Fresno was a much different place in the mid-1980s. For one, there wasn't a sprawling business park nearby on Palm. And there weren't nearly as many drivers who cut through Audubon to avoid numerous traffic lights on Nees Avenue, Blackstone Avenue and Friant Road.
During rush hour, traffic on Audubon is heavy with many drivers exceeding the 40-mph speed limit, especially when coming down the highway overpass. So heavy, in fact, that residents can have a difficult time making a left turn onto Audubon from Del Mar. Several cars often are backed up at the stop sign.
"Our neighborhood is congested enough without the extra traffic a parking lot would bring, " Bauer said.
The Bluff Homeowners argue there is plenty of access to River West without the divisive parking lot. Visitors will still be able to access the area through Woodward Park and another parking lot planned along old Highway 41. Spano Park, which sits on the bluff near Palm and Nees, also would provide access.
Woodward Park's main parking lots are a mile away from River West, counters the Parkway Trust, while reaching the parking lot on old Highway 41 entails 10 extra miles of driving. And Spano Park, which sits on the bluff, would be connected to the river bottom via a steep staircase. Try riding a bike – or pushing a wheelchair – down that.
But the Bluff Homeowners, headed by Bauer and Pete Mehas, a California State University trustee and former Fresno County schools superintendent, have some powerful forces on their side.
Among them is Borgeas, who represented District 2 in northwest Fresno from 2008-11 before being elected to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.
In response to a July 2009 fire that burned down a bluff home, Borgeas spearheaded the San Joaquin River & Bluff Protection Initiative, a set of rules designed to improve and coordinate the regulation of public use of the river area between Highways 41 and 99.
While enthusiastic about River West and the idea of people recreating responsibly along the river, Borgeas sides with the homeowners group.
"The river is nobody's backyard – it's a public asset, " Borgeas said. "I want this trail system installed, and I want it to be as close to the river as possible. ... But the notion of having a parking lot in the river-bottom area is not sensitive to the environmental or public-safety impacts."
When all is said and done, Fresno will not make the final decision about River West.
Last November, the city abdicated that responsibility by turning over lead agency status to the San Joaquin River Conservancy, whose 16-member board of directors will have final authority over the project.
Why did the city do that? Essentially, to lessen its exposure to potential lawsuits.
This is where things get a little murky. Even though the city no longer is the lead agency, it can exert some authority over the project through the general plan 2035 update. Policy changes written into the update could potentially block vehicular access to River West through the bluff neighborhood.
Marks believes that no decisions should be made until the project undergoes the environmental review and public comment period mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act. Until then, arguing about it is pointless.
"The debate has gotten so emotional, " Marks said. "Let the democratic process and the CEQA process take place. That's what needs to happen.
"Everything else is just noise and speculation."
Marks, the San Joaquin River Conservancy's executive director, wants the draft environmental impact report to study four alternatives that cover a range of parking and trail options. The ones that don't make sense, either logistically or environmentally, will get tossed out.
How long until River West gets built? That depends on the EIR – and if either of the two sides resort to litigation.
Late 2015 or 2016 is the best-case scenario, Marks said. But after four years of delays already, even that seems optimistic.
There's another hitch, too. Even though the San Joaquin River Conservancy has the cash to construct trails and build infrastructure such as parking lots, restrooms and kiosks at River West, that money cannot be used for upkeep.
In fact, according to Marks, no construction can begin on either side of the river until funding is located to cover 25 years of maintenance and operations.
Where will that money come from? Marks suggested a range of options, including user fees and perhaps even using Measure C funds.
But that's still a ways out. For now, a key piece of the San Joaquin River Parkway remains stuck in limbo.
"I have trust in the process, " Marks said. "Eventually there will be a trail system we can all go out and enjoy."