Lawsuit seeks reversal of vote for San Joaquin River access through neighborhood

A group of northwest Fresno residents are taking their case to court to block proposed access to a San Joaquin River trail through their neighborhood west of Highway 41.

The San Joaquin River Access Corporation – formed by residents of the Woodward Bluffs neighborhood to acquire property and easements for a river access route for cars at Palm and Nees avenues – filed a lawsuit on Thursday against the San Joaquin River Conservancy over the agency’s 8-5 vote in February to reject the residents’ efforts and instead pursue access from Riverview Drive.

The conservancy board includes a combination of representatives from state and local agencies, and is tasked with providing public access to a growing parkway along the river between Fresno and Madera counties. That includes the River West expansion of of the Lewis Eaton Trail west of Highway 41.

There’s one planned access point that’s not a particular issue of controversy: a trailhead and parking lot near the Perrin Avenue underpass beneath Highway 41 on the south side of the San Joaquin River. But to reach it, residents on the Fresno side of the river have to drive north on Highway 41 to the Madera County side, and then use a frontage road to get back to the south side of the river.

But when it comes to a second access point for vehicles, that’s where the disagreements arise. One is from Riverview Drive, in the Bluffs neighborhood. A private gate currently prevents cars from using a private road down to the river, but pedestrians can park in the nearby neighborhood and walk through a small side gate and follow a path to the river. Residents living in the area have long opposed that option for fear of disrupting the neighborhood with additional car traffic.

The other option is from a cul de sac near a complex of business offices and retail stores at Palm and Nees avenues. That’s the one that’s been backed not only by the Bluffs residents, who formed the River Access Corporation to buy property on the riverbottom as an enticement for the conservancy to choose that alternative over Riverview Drive.

The lawsuit by the River Access Corporation and three northwest Fresno residents accuses the river conservancy and four of its individual members of failing to act in good faith with Bluffs residents to successfully develop the Palm/Nees access option, even after the corporation obtained the property and developed a plan for safe closure of a former landfill for construction materials at the site. Several of the conservancy board members said in February, however, that the residents’ corporation did not completely fulfill the conditions set by the agency in late 2017.

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“We feel we met the benchmarks. … We made decisions, spent money based on those benchmarks being in effect,” John Kinsey, an attorney representing the corporation, said immediately following the vote. “It’s unfair for them to pull the rug out from under us at this point.” (NOTE: This story has been updated to delete an incorrect reference saying Kinsey is a Bluffs resident.)

At that time, Kinsey said he believed that the corporation would file suit over the controversy.

The San Joaquin River Conservancy is a joint state-local agency, and its board includes local representatives from the Fresno and Madera city councils and county boards of supervisors, the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District and the Madera Irrigation District, and two local residents. State agencies with representatives on the board come from the Fish & Wildlife, Parks & Recreation and Finance departments, the state Lands Commission, Natural Resources Agency and the Wildlife Conservation Board.

The individual conservancy board members named in the lawsuit are Julie Vance, regional manager of the state’s Fish & Wildlife Department; Wildlife Conservation Board executive director John Donnelly; Jennifer Lucchesi, executive officer of the State Lands Commission; and Madera City Councilman Santos Garcia.

Lawsuit alleges ‘impermissible bias’

The suit accuses Vance, Donnelly, Lucchesi and Garcia of acting with a bias against the Bluffs neighbors and failing to serve in an impartial manner. “These four individuals in particular were under an obligation to recuse themselves,” Kinsey said Friday. “We are constitutionally entitled to impartial decision makers.” Instead, the lawsuit alleges that “they exhibited impermissible bias against Petitioners and others who supported” the Palm/Nees option and should have been disqualified from participating in the board’s discussion and votes on the access issue.

The primary goal of the lawsuit, Kinsey said, is to persuade a court that the River Access Corporation in fact met the benchmarks that were set by the conservancy board. It seeks a court order to invalidate the February vote to halt work toward the Palm/Nees access.

It’s unclear just how much time may pass before the lawsuit is heard in court, but Fresno Mayor Lee Brand – who has actively backed the Palm/Nees option – expressed fear after the February vote that it could stall any progress on improving public access to the riverbottom trail anytime soon. “This is ultimately going to lead to a lawsuit that’s going to take another two or three years,” Brand said.

The wait for river access has been long and, for many people, frustrating. It’s been more than 25 years since concept of a river parkway was officially launched. Fifteen years have passed since $10 million in state and Packard Foundation money was used to buy the 508-acre Spano River Ranch west of Highway 41 to facilitate what is now called the River West project and a 2.4 mile extension of the Eaton Trail from its current terminus behind Woodward Park east of the highway.

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.