San Joaquin River access plan flips. Board endorses route through Bluffs neighborhood

A compromise to provide three public access points to the Lewis Eaton Trail along the San Joaquin River west of Highway 41 in northwest Fresno fell apart Wednesday, as members of a joint state-local board failed to reach agreement on how to proceed.

Instead, more than a year after grudging approval was given to a plan to provide access by way of a cul de sac at Palm and Nees avenues, the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board reversed course and asked its staff to instead bring back a proposal for access from Riverview Drive, in the upscale Woodward Bluffs neighborhood.

The 8-5 vote not only sets the stage for a potential lawsuit by Bluffs residents, but means it will likely be several more months before a definitive proposal can come before the conservancy board for formal approval. In the meantime, it also slams the brakes on work by the San Joaquin River Access Corporation – formed by Bluffs residents to acquire property and easements in support of the Palm/Nees entry and keep traffic congestion away from their neighborhood.

Also up in the air is whether the agency can move forward with plans for access from Perrin Avenue – an option that no one is arguing over but is caught up procedurally in the debate between the two more contentious options.

The debate centers around access to what is called the River West Open Space Area and a 2.4-mile extension of the Eaton Trail from its current terminus behind Woodward Park, east of Highway 41. The initial access is planned for a parking lot and trailhead from the Perrin Avenue underpass under Highway 41 just south of the San Joaquin River.

But the conservancy board and the public at large are divided over where a second access point should be: Palm and Nees avenues or at Riverview Drive, a street stub in the Bluffs neighborhood that dead-ends into a gate guarding a private access road to the riverbottom below.

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, who has actively backed access from Palm and Nees avenues, shared his disappointment. “I told (the board) in the spirit of cooperation that we would open up the discussion of (Riverview Drive) and consider both alternatives,” Brand said after the vote. “If they both passed, we’d have even more access to the river. ... I wanted a compromise that would benefit all of the city of Fresno.”

“This is ultimately going to lead to a lawsuit that’s going to take another two or three years,” he added. “It’s very frustrating.”

The vote stops short of pulling the plug on the board’s conditional December 2017 approval of Palm/Nees. But John Kinsey, an attorney for Bluffs residents, said his clients will no doubt consider litigation over the decision. Kinsey said the River Access Corporation effectively met all of the conditions set forth by the conservation board 14 months ago and disregards residents’ good-faith effort to buy the land and accomplish other tasks to make Palm/Nees a reality. (NOTE: This story has been updated to delete an incorrect reference saying Kinsey is a Bluffs resident.)

“I think it’s ironic that the board made a decision that actually limits access as opposed to furthers access,” Kinsey said. “What they’ve decided is that they want one point of access as opposed to multiple ones.”

Kinsey said the River Access Corporation believes it accomplished a series of benchmarks that were set for the organization, “and that’s something we’re prepared to test in court.”

“We feel we met the benchmarks. ... We made decisions, spent money based on those benchmarks being in effect,” he added. “It’s unfair for them to pull the rug out from under us at this point.”

Conservancy board member Julie Vance, regional manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, stated Wednesday that she thought the nonprofit fell short of achieving the requirements, including addressing concerns over an easement to allow public access across property owned by the Spanos family to reach a parking lot that will be built atop a former landfill for construction materials.

“We did not receive the Spanos easement to the board’s satisfaction,” Vance said. “As far as the benchmarks go, I don’t feel they were met. ... We got legal threats and statements that are inaccurate.”

How they voted

Vance was joined by other state agency representatives on the board including Kent Gresham of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, Wildlife Conservation Board executive director John Donnelly, Natural Resources Agency deputy assistant secretary Julie Alvis, State Lands Commission executive officer Julie Lucchesi, and Department of Finance program budget manager Karen Finn.

They were joined by Santos Garcia, a member of the Madera City Council, and Bryn Forhan, one of two citizen representatives on the conservancy board.

Madera County Supervisor Brett Frazier, Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau, Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig, Madera Irrigation District director Carl Janzen and Fresno public representative Paul Gibson all voted against the Riverview Drive option.

Forhan initially offered a motion to move ahead with both options as a compromise that would provide three access points – Perrin Avenue, Palm/Nees and Riverview Drive. But that fell one vote short of passing, prompting a flurry of frustration from other board members as Garcia moved to direct the staff to prepare the necessary reports to proceed with Riverview Drive access.

Frazier, the conservancy board chairman, lashed out at his colleagues for rejecting a compromise that would expand access. Instead, he said, “this will limit access.”

John Shelton, the conservancy board’s executive officer, said the vote leaves it very unclear what he and his staff can do to advance any of the access options. The December 2017 vote paved the way for both Perrin Avenue access, parking and trails – a package considered the “core project” – as well as the Palm/Nees access. Garcia’s motion made no reference to authorizing the staff to continue to work on the Perrin Avenue portion of River West.

Shelton said it could take between two and eight months for he and his staff to assess whether the Riverview Drive access would require additional environmental study over what’s already been done for the River West project. “Then we have this meeting all over again,” he said. “We don’t have the clear authority” to do anything beyond presenting a proposal for Riverview Drive access or to continue to do anything on Palm/Nees or Perrin Avenue.

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319, @TimSheehanNews

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.