Decision about public access to San Joaquin River delayed – again – at marathon meeting

San Joaquin River Conservancy Board meeting draws packed house

See the standing-room only Fresno City Council Chambers and hear from one of the 55 speakers during the public comment portion of the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board meeting on the River West plan.
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See the standing-room only Fresno City Council Chambers and hear from one of the 55 speakers during the public comment portion of the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board meeting on the River West plan.

In a meeting that lasted almost seven hours Wednesday, the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board moved only a little bit toward approving a plan for a key piece of land.

The board listened to 55 people during public comment and hours of debate from the dais before unanimously approving the overall environmental report for the River West Open Space Area.

But the conservancy’s board – comprising representatives of local and state agencies with an interest in the river – ultimately delayed the hard part: a decision to approve an option for public access to the river bottom. The members, and the public, were torn between creating a new road to the future River West trail from a cul de sac at Palm and Nees avenues, near Pinedale, and opening up access less than a mile upstream, through a gate at Riverview Drive off of Audubon Avenue in the upscale Woodward Bluffs neighborhood.

Twenty-five years since the concept of a San Joaquin River Parkway was officially launched – and 14 years since $10 million in state and Packard Foundation money was used to purchase the 508-acre Spano River Ranch west of Highway 41 – the River West Open Space Area remains difficult to reach by the public.

Louis Moosios, a San Joaquin River landowner and fishing guide, shows the sights and sounds of the river where it borders Fresno between highways 99 and 41.

River West would extend the Lewis S. Eaton Trail about two miles from its current terminus behind Woodward Park. There would be trails for people to walk along the river.

The Eaton Trail has not been extended. Instead, the parkway has been tied up by sensitive politics over vehicle access at River West involving the city of Fresno, residents near the river and rules about its impact on the environment.

Following impassioned pleas Wednesday from an audience that was nearly evenly divided – 28 speakers favoring Palm/Nees, 27 advocating for Riverview Drive – the board at first voted down the Palm/Nees option on a 9-5 vote. Palm/Nees was the option being recommended by the conservancy’s staff and is strongly supported by the city of Fresno and Mayor Lee Brand. It also was the only option available for a potential decision Wednesday by the conservancy board.

Instead, the board agreed on a 12-2 vote to ask its staff to return Dec. 13 with more information about the Riverview Drive option. That’s when they will attempt to finally decide between the two choices before the end of the year, when the conservancy’s contract with its environmental consultants expires.

The environmental impact report approved by the board evaluated a range of options for access, but the public comments and the board’s debate quickly boiled the choices down to Palm/Nees and Riverview Drive.

Both Palm/Nees and Riverview Drive options would also include one primary alternative for access from the Perrin Avenue undercrossing of Highway 41, for which motorists in Fresno have to first head north on Highway 41 across the river into Madera County, and then return south into Fresno to reach the access point.

Residents in the Woodward Bluffs area said allowing access through their neighborhood would create a traffic safety hazard. “I walk that route every day,” said Leighann Milford, one neighbor. “Riverview is a very short road. It is very dangerous with the traffic for walkers, bikers and joggers,” she said.

Gina Flores, another Woodward Bluffs resident, agreed. “From what I can see, (Palm/Nees) provides the best access and the best amenities,” she said. At Riverview Drive, Flores added, “I’m concerned with traffic congestion and safety.” Others said they feared an increase in access for people to drive to the river, rather than parking near the gate and walking as they do now, would disrupt the peace and quiet of the neighborhood.

Across the aisle in the Fresno City Council chamber, many supporters of the Riverview option wore yellow emblems printed with a black 1 – the number designated for the Riverview option in the environmental impact report.

Why does Fresno lack a trail system or other river amenities found in other Valley cities? The River West area on the city's northern border is the final piece to making it happen.

Former conservancy board member Carolyn Nolan, a Fresno resident, told the board she prefers the Riverview option “because it provides access right now.”

“You don’t have to buy any more property. (Palm/Nees) will be a slow process, and it costs several million dollars more than (Riverview). It’s a waste of taxpayer money, in my opinion.”

In an interview later, Nolan cited the purchase of the Spano River Ranch property using state and Packard Foundation money; that land runs up to Riverview Drive. “The people who are opposing this, that money didn’t come out of their pockets,” she said.

Brand was visibly frustrated by another month of delay before a decision can be made, but expressed hope that a compromise can be reached to prevent the dispute over the two access points from careening into a courtroom in the form of a lawsuit.

“I do not want to see this end up in litigation,” he told The Bee in an interview after the meeting. “We’ve got to get the two sides together.”

But “this is not going to go away,” Brand added. “The public demands that we do something.”

Brand said he still believes Palm/Nees is the superior option. He allowed, however, that if the Palm/Nees option proves to be not feasible based on issues over acquiring property or dealing with the aftermath of an old dump on the site where a parking lot would be built, he is open to using Riverview Drive instead.

“It’s not that Riverview is impossible,” he said. “But nobody wants all this traffic going through their neighborhood, whether they’re in the bluffs or in Pinedale.”