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Board chooses Palm/Nees avenues as access to San Joaquin River

A state-appointed board has decided that public access to the San Joaquin River bottom west of Highway 41 on the Fresno side of the river should be from a cul-de-sac adjacent to a northwest Fresno business park.

The San Joaquin River Conservancy board, comprising representatives of local and state agencies with a stake in the river, voted 8-6 that the best of two alternatives for access was at Palm and Nees avenues. A new road would need to be built from the cul-de-sac through Spano Park to a future parking lot and trailhead on the site of a former construction and demolition landfill.

It was a decision that was pushed off for a month after a contentious seven-hour meeting in November at which some board members chafed at being offered only one choice for on-the-spot approval and wanted more information about a second option through a residential neighborhood about a mile upstream.

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In December 2017 the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board voted 8-6 to build a new road to the River West Open Space Area from Spano Park near Palm & Nees avenues. A subsequent vote in January 2019 essentially halts that decision. Tim Sheehan tsheehan@fresnobee.com

The decision came after the conservancy’s board meeting in Clovis, and while not everyone is happy about it, the vote represents a major milestone for recreation along the San Joaquin River. It’s been 25 years since the concept of a river parkway was officially launched, and 14 years since $10 million in state and Packard Foundation money was used to buy the 508-acre Spano River Ranch west of Highway 41.

The debate focused around access to what is called the River West Open Space Area and a 2.4-mile extension of the Lewis S. Eaton Trail from its current terminus behind Woodward Park, east of Highway 41. The initial access is proposed from a parking lot and trailhead from the Perrin Avenue underpass under Highway 41 just south of the San Joaquin River – a route that requires Fresno drivers to first head north on Highway 41 across the river into Madera County, and then return south on a frontage road to Perrin.

But board members and the public were divided over whether a second access point should be at Palm and Nees avenues or at Riverview Drive, a street stub in the upscale Woodward Bluffs neighborhood that dead-ends into a gate guarding a private access road. That gate would be opened and a new road built to a future parking lot and trailhead. The gate already provides pedestrian and bicycle access to the river bottom for people who park on nearby neighborhood streets

The Perrin access “will hopefully occur no matter which project you adopt,” conservancy executive officer Melinda Marks told the board at the start of the meeting. That portion of the River West project calls for the extended Eaton Trail; a parking lot with space for 50 cars and three horse trailers; bicycle and pedestrian access from Riverview Drive, Palm and Nees avenues, and Churchill Avenue; and a staircase that leads from the trail up the bluff face to Spano Park at Palm and Nees avenues. Marks estimated that those core elements are likely to cost $3.8 million to $4.1 million.

Marks said that based on preliminary design work, a new road and parking lot linked to a Riverview Drive entrance would add about $2 million to the cost of the parkway expansion, while the Palm/Nees option for a new access road and parking lot would cost $3.5 million to $4 million more.

The same options were hotly debated in November when property owners in the Woodward Bluffs neighborhood – who have long opposed vehicle access through Riverview Drive – unveiled a last-minute proposal to buy the former landfill property in support of the Palm/Nees option. Residents created the nonprofit San Joaquin River Access Corporation, which has an option to buy the 11.6-acre landfill site from the Spano family for $100. The new organization, incorporated in October, is offering the property to the conservancy as either a lease or purchase – provided the conservancy would choose the Palm/Nees option instead of the Riverview Drive access.

The offer of the property, however, seemed to raise more questions than answers for some of the state representatives on the conservancy board – including concerns about the nonprofit’s long-term ability to live up to its commitments, which include securing clearance from Fresno County that there are no environmental hazards associated with the inert materials buried in the landfill.

More convincing were remarks by Bruce Rudd, Fresno’s interim assistant city manager, who offered a not-so-veiled threat that the city might not cooperate with the conservancy if the board were to choose the Riverview access instead of the Palm/Nees option supported by Mayor Lee Brand.

State bond funds that are available to the conservancy for development of the river parkway can only be used for land acquisition and construction, but not for ongoing operations and maintenance of the site. “Without long-term commitments or partnerships, we cannot begin construction,” Marks said. And the most likely partner to receive state grant money for construction, and to take on the responsibility for operating and maintaining the parkway extension, she added, is the city of Fresno. The city already operates other parts of the Eaton Trail.

Rudd cautioned the conservancy board members that they must consider “how today’s decision will affect future discussions and feasibility of actually completing this project,” given the city’s opposition to the Riverview Drive access.

Outside the meeting room, Rudd doubled down on his remarks. “What we’re trying to convey to the members, especially the state representatives, is that at the end of the day you are going to have to partner with the city of Fresno,” he said. “You should take into strong consideration what the city’s position and desire is.”

If the board were to select Riverview Drive, he added, “we would be hard-pressed to fund things like the ongoing cost of maintenance. Find another partner.”

Rudd’s remarks were not lost on board member Julie Vance, regional manager of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “I think (Riverview Drive) is a better alternative, but the city has put us in an untenable position,” she said. “We can’t ignore the money that the city brings. The city is essential to making this work.”

Vance, who voiced strong support in November for the Riverview Drive option, ultimately made the motion to proceed with work at Palm/Nees on the condition that several key performance benchmarks – including property acquisition by the San Joaquin River Access nonprofit, securing necessary access easements, city exceptions to tree-removal ordinances for construction of a road from Spano Park to the parking lot, and others – be met within a year. If not, the motion calls for the conservancy to abandon Palm/Nees and turn back to Riverview Drive as its primary focus.

Other state agency representatives on the board – Kent Gresham of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, Wildlife Conservation Board executive director John Donnely, deputy assistant secretary Julie Alvis from the Natural Resources Agency, State Lands Commission Executive Officer Jennifer Lucchesi and Department of Finance program budget manager Karen Finn – all voted no on the Palm/Nees proposal. They were joined by Carl Janzen, a member of the Madera Irrigation District board of directors.

Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, who is the current chairman of the conservancy board, was joined on the “yes” side by Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau, Madera County Supervisor Brett Frazier, Madera City Councilman Will Oliver, Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District board member Roy Spina, citizen representatives Bryn Forhan and Paul Gibson, and Vance.

“I am 100 percent optimistic” that the Palm/Nees alternative can be successfully developed, Borgeas said. “It’s an entirely do-able project. The facts, the law and the environment all demonstrate that Palm/Nees is the most viable.”

How quickly it can be developed remains to be seen. Marks said she now has to come up with a work plan of tasks that need to be accomplished not only to move forward with what she called the “core project” at Perrin Avenue as well as negotiations to pin down details of a property agreement with the nonprofit for the landfill site.

Just for the Perrin Avenue project, she said, a multitude of engineering plans have to be drawn up and submitted to various agencies for evaluation and permits. “There is still a lot of work,” Marks said. “If this were on a fast track, we’re probably looking at about four years” before the public sees tangible construction begin.

Wednesday’s vote, however, “gets us off of square one,” she said. “I can start at least implementing the proposed project.”

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