Bluffs residents offer parking lot as a plum for river access away from their homes

Large homes are seen on the bluffs above a pond near the San Joaquin River in north Fresno in May. The area is in crosshairs of homeowners and members of the public trying to agree on access to the river area.
Large homes are seen on the bluffs above a pond near the San Joaquin River in north Fresno in May. The area is in crosshairs of homeowners and members of the public trying to agree on access to the river area. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Woodward Bluffs residents have formed a new nonprofit corporation that says it’s willing to purchase a former landfill on the San Joaquin River bottom for use as a future river trail parking lot – provided a state board selects an access point that doesn’t send traffic through their upscale neighborhood overlooking the waterway.

Representatives of the San Joaquin River Access Corp. sprang the surprise announcement on members of the San Joaquin River Conservancy board Wednesday afternoon at Fresno City Hall, following a contentious hearing at which residents argued for hours over which of two alternative access points to the river bottom west of Highway 41 should be developed for future vehicle access.

According to articles of incorporation filed Oct. 19 with the California Secretary of State, San Joaquin River Access was incorporated with the stated purpose to “ensure reasonable public access to the San Joaquin River and the Fresno River West / Eaton Trail extension.”

Kristine Walter, a Bluffs resident listed as secretary and chief financial officer of the nonprofit, told the conservancy board that the group had an option to buy 11.6 acres of the former Spano River Ranch landfill from the Spano family to accelerate the development of the River West project via an access point at Palm and Nees avenues. That potential access is about a one-mile drive southwest of the Bluffs neighborhood.

“Today was the first time we’ve heard about this,” Melinda Marks, the conservancy’s executive officer, said of Walter’s announcement, which surprised her and the conservancy’s 14-member board – comprising of representatives of local and state agencies with an interest in the river – as they grappled with the options before them.

Wednesday’s marathon meeting ended with no decision on river access. The board will try again on Dec. 13 – its last chance to select an option before its contract with environmental consultants expires at the end of the year. A five-volume environmental impact report for the overall River West expansion was certified by the board on Wednesday on a unanimous 14-0 vote.

The River West expansion of the Lewis Eaton Trail calls for vehicle access to one trailhead at the Perrin Avenue undercrossing of Highway 41. To reach that point, drivers in Fresno have to first head north on Highway 41 across the river into Madera County, and then return south on a frontage road to Perrin Avenue.

It’s two other options that are the points of controversy.

One of those, called Alternative 1, is at Riverview Drive, a street stub in the Bluffs neighborhood that dead-ends into a gate guarding a private access road to a pair of homes on the river bottom. The gate now affords a path for people to park on nearby streets and walk down to the river. That alternative calls for opening the vehicle gate and paving a road to a new 1.7-acre parking lot and trailhead along the river trail.

The second, dubbed Alternative 5B, is a proposal to build a new access road from a cul de sac at Palm and Nees avenues, less than a mile downstream from Riverview Drive, to a future parking lot and trailhead on the site of a former landfill now owned by the Spano family. That property was not part of the sale, 14 years ago, of the 508-acre Spano River Ranch to the state for $10 million in state and Packard Foundation money.

access map 2
Two options are in play for public access to the River West extension of the Lewis Eaton Trail along the San Joaquin River in addition to a planned Perrin Avenue access point. TIM SHEEHAN tsheehan@fresnobee.com

During several hours of public comment at Wednesday’s hearing, sentiments were nearly evenly divided among the two alternatives – 28 speakers, many of them Bluffs neighbors, encouraged the board to select the Palm/Nees option, while 27 speakers urged access from Riverview Drive.

John Kinsey, an attorney for the nonprofit, told the conservancy board that San Joaquin River Access is prepared to buy the land, handle any potential cleanup associated with the landfill, and develop a parking lot for a trailhead – but only if the board selected the Palm/Nees alternative instead of Riverview Drive. “We want to provide access and parking for this project; we thought this was a way to get it done,” Kinsey said. “Upon approval of 5B, we’ll be able to enter the option. The Spano family provided us with an option to take title to the property for the sum of $100.” (NOTE: This story has been updated to delete an incorrect reference saying Kinsey is a Bluffs resident.)

“Obviously we are highly motivated to take title,” Kinsey added, declaring that paperwork for the option to purchase was to have been recorded on Wednesday.

The parking-lot plum, however, was not enough to convince the conservancy board to choose the Palm/Nees option – at least not yet. Several board members said they wanted to see paperwork and documentation of the nonprofit’s plans rather than take Walter’s and Kinsey’s word at face value.

“I’m intrigued by this last-minute development,” said Jennifer Lucchesi, executive officer of the State Lands Commission. But, she added, “I want to see those documents before I assign any kind of value. I want to take everybody at their words, but words matter and words in documents matter even more.”

The nonprofit’s prospective offer also piqued the interest of board member Roy Spina, a director of the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District, but he too called for more information before using it as a basis for approving the Palm/Nees option. “We need answers right away,” he said, “and if we don’t have them, we drop it flat.”

Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, the commission’s chairman, described the situation as “a reasonable compromise here that looks after the interests of the Riverview constituency as well as the 5B constituency.”

Board member Karen Finn, a program budget manager with the state Department of Finance, remained skeptical. “I feel this board is being swayed today by a hollow, no-facts-behind-it development,” Finn said of Walter’s and Kinsey’s comments.

Kinsey and Barry Bauer, a Bluffs resident listed as the nonprofit’s CEO, did not return calls Thursday seeking additional information about their efforts. Walter provided The Bee with a brief written statement on behalf of the organization outlining a commitment “to helping the San Joaquin River Conservancy move froward with the Eaton trail expansion in a manner that provides the greatest benefit to the public.”

When afforded the opportunity to buy the Spano property, the statement added, the nonprofit “took the initiative to help resolve the issue of access to the Eaton Trail expansion.”

The statement suggests that the nonprofit is not daunted by the lukewarm reaction to its prospective offer. “The SJRAC understands this is only the beginning of the process,” it says, “and looks forward to discussions with the relevant stakeholders about how to bring Alternative 5B to fruition for benefit of all of residents in our region.”

On a 12-2 vote, board members asked Marks and her staff to bring back a more complete summary of the environmental analysis and possible resolutions of approval for both the Riverview Drive and Palm/Nees access options in December so they can compare the two on an equal footing. Several board members complained that the only option made available to them for immediate approval on Wednesday was Palm/Nees. An initial motion by Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau to approve Palm/Nees, and rely on Riverview as a fallback plan if progress stalled, was defeated on a 9-5 vote.