Marek Warszawski

Deck is stacked against the public interest in crucial San Joaquin River vote

Should the public have the right to drive on a public street to get to a public park?

Of course they should, right? It’s a no-brainer. Who in the heck would oppose that?

The city of Fresno and Mayor Lee Brand, that’s who.

All to protect the interests of a few wealthy and influential people. And you know what? They’ll probably get away with it.

Nearly a decade of proposals and heated debate could finally come to a head Wednesday at the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board meeting. Due to anticipated interest, the meeting will take place at 10 a.m. at the Fresno City Council chamber.

Which is fitting, because the city has its fingerprints all over an anticipated vote over how the citizens of Fresno and neighboring cities will get to the River West Fresno Open Space Area.

The River West Fresno Open Space Area north of Fresno’s bluffs encompasses about 400 acres of undeveloped riverbottom land. The Lewis S. Eaton Trail would also be extended some 2 miles west of Highway 41 and would also include fishing and boating access along with hiking trails. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

If this is the first time you’ve heard about River West Fresno, I suggest reading up. There have been far too many twists, turns and delays to rehash every single one.

Here’s the succinct version: Way, way back in 2003, $10 million in state and Packard Foundation money was spent to buy the 508-acre Spano River Ranch west of Highway 41 with the intent of adding it to the San Joaquin River Parkway. In doing so, the Lewis S. Eaton Trail would be extended by some 2 miles.

Almost 15 years later there’s still no park, no trail extension, no money to operate and maintain anything.

Wednesday’s anticipated vote by the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board, the project’s primary decision-makers, would finally make some progress on River West Fresno as its 14 members decide between several alternatives presented in the environmental impact report.

Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against any outcome that offers the most public benefit.

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There are three potential vehicle access points for River West Fresno, none of which make everyone happy.

The first (and only access point included in the “proposed project” alternative) is at the Perrin Avenue undercrossing of Highway 41. Which is fine if you live in Madera County. But for those living in Fresno, getting there by car is an additional 10 miles round trip.

The second (and thorniest) potential access point is off Riverview Drive in the Woodward Bluffs neighborhood – one of the wealthiest enclaves in Fresno.

Even though this road was designed in the 1980s to support car access to a planned 1,500-home development in the river bottom, a neighborhood coalition has effectively blocked that road from being used to get to a public park in the 2010s. How? By using its influence, in 2013, to amend the city’s 2035 General Plan.

Here’s how the General Plan update reads in full: “Public access into the Riverview Drive Area/Neighborhoods should be limited to cyclists and pedestrians with the exception of public safety, circulation, and/or other governmental/support service provider vehicles.”

In other words, the public should not be allowed to drive their cars on this public road to get to a public park.

Why was the 2035 General Plan updated in such a fashion?

“The only reason it’s in there is because of a couple people that wrote it are friends with the mayor,” says Sharon Weaver, executive director of the nonprofit San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust and a vocal critic of what’s going on.

(Editor's note: This commentary wasn't clear that the Fresno mayor at the time was Ashley Swearengin. Current Mayor Lee Brand, who was a city councilman at the time, voted against the update.)

Is this even legal? No, and the city knows that. Which is why the amendment to the general plan is followed by this addendum: “Commentary: Public right-of-way held by the City for public street purposes will remain accessible to the public consistent with the requirements of the California Vehicle Code.”

Now, I’m not a lawyer. Nor do I play one in the newspaper. But to me that reads like a mealy-mouthed admission that what the city is doing doesn’t hold any legal water.

The third potential access point to River West Fresno is from the vicinity of Palm and Nees avenues, where an old gravel haul road already provides access to the river bottom.

But the city does not want to use this road. Instead, it wants to build a new road, at considerable taxpayer expense (estimated in the $5 million range), that would all but obliterate already tiny Spano Park and require the removal of several mature sycamore trees.

This so-called Option 5B was formally introduced by Brand and then-City Manager Bruce Rudd at the Board meeting in May and subsequently added to the environmental impact report (at more taxpayer expense).

Water flows westward on San Joaquin River just north of Fresno on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. The River West Fresno Open Space project would provide much-needed access, if the long-delayed park ever gets built. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

Why would the City seek to build a new road when a suitable one already exists? Because property owner Cliff Tutelian, who owns the nearby Park Place Shopping Center, had more foresight than anyone in our city government.

Back when the shopping center was built, Tutelian secured a conditional easement with the city that more or less reads like this: If you use my road to access the river bottom, you also have to use Riverview Drive, as well.

And that’s simply a nonstarter with our local politicians and the power brokers they’re beholden to.

Ideally, River West Fresno would have all three access points: Perrin, Riverview and Palm and Nees. But that’s very unlikely to happen, and here’s why:

Look at the agenda item for Wednesday’s meeting. Instead of getting to vote on the entire range of alternatives, Board members are being presented with two bad choices: the proposed project (with the only car access coming at Perrin Avenue) and Option 5B.

Why are the other alternatives (including Alternative 1, which would put access through Riverview Drive) not up for a vote? Melinda Marks, the San Joaquin River Conservancy executive director, told me in an email Alternative 1 “has significant impacts that are unavoidable.” What impacts? Lawsuits from the neighborhood coalition and conflicts with the General Plan, which was amended at the same group’s behest.

“I’m just dumbfounded the agenda was set up this way,” Weaver said. “It’s just so blatant, and it’s a sad thing to see.”

If a Board member prefers an alternative other than the “proposed project” or Option 5B, he or she has to make a motion, get it seconded and then have the motion passed by a majority. Then, and only then, can staff be directed to place the new item on the agenda in December.

And let me remind you that if the Board doesn’t certify the environmental impact report by year’s end, the contracts expire and the process starts over.

I’m just hoping there’s someone on the Board (or several someones) who will see past this ruse, see past the city’s influence to prevent the public from driving on a public street and muster enough votes for a project that benefits the most people. Goodness knows we need more river access.

But I don’t know if that’ll happen. The skids have been greased. It might be too late.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

If you go

What: San Joaquin River Conservancy Board votes on River West Fresno Open Space Area

When: 10 a.m. Wednesday

Where: Fresno City Hall council chambers, 2600 Fresno Street (at P Street)

Agenda: Get a link to read Wednesday’s meeting agenda,