Marek Warszawski

City employs strong-arm tactics to get its way on River West

In the end, strong-arm tactics produced their desired effect.

The people of Fresno are getting access to the San Joaquin River. Well, sooner or later. And the city of Fresno got its way.

Two proposals for accessing Fresno’s most tantalizing and unrealized public land – 508 acres of undeveloped river bottom west of Highway 41 – came before the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board during Wednesday’s meeting at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District.

One of them had the backing of Fresno Mayor Lee Brand and the entire city bureaucracy.

The other got the back of the city’s hand.

Which is why we’ll be exiting and entering the River West Open Space Area through Spano Park near Palm and Nees avenues rather than Riverview Drive in the nearby Woodward Bluffs neighborhood. Even though the Palm/Nees option will cost more than $1 million more, according to the latest estimates.

The River West Open Space Area as seen from Spano Park, which will become the primary Fresno-side access point following Wednesday’s vote by the San Joaquin River Conservancy board. MAREK WARSZAWSKI

Brand wasn’t actually present at Wednesday’s meeting. Instead he sent a surrogate, Bruce Rudd, to read a four-paragraph letter stating his “absolute and unequivocal support” for public access to California’s second-longest river and full support of Alternative 5B (Spano Park).

Rudd then veered off script. Fresno’s assistant city manager warned the board that if it approved Alternative 1, the “tone and tenor” of the state agency’s relationship with the city would be negatively impacted. He went on to make up a hypothetical conversation between a conservancy staffer and a city counterpart about future operations and upkeep that strongly implied City Hall wouldn’t cooperate.

In other words, if the board approved vehicular access to River West via Riverview Drive, the city would take its ball and go home.

They were the sort of comments usually delivered during intense, backroom political deal-making, not in a public forum in front of a microphone.

While listening to Rudd speak, a certain word popped into my head. Then a lady a couple of seats down uttered it for me.

“That sounds like blackmail,” she said.

During intermission, I caught up with Rudd and asked if he intended his comments to be perceived in that manner. He said he did not but stood by them.

Right about then, a woman wearing a yellow “Alternative 1” sticker on her sweater interrupted our conversation.

“I’ve never been so ashamed of Fresno or the mayor,” she pointedly told Rudd.

What was the impact of Rudd’s words on the 14-member board? For at least one of them, it was massive.

During last month’s meeting, Julie Vance was among the nine who voted against access through Spano Park. Wednesday, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife regional manager made the motion that resulted in Alternative 5B passing by an 8-6 vote.

What changed?

“I prefer Alternative 1, but the city has to be partners with us on a parkway through the city of Fresno,” Vance said afterward. “We didn’t have a choice, in my opinion. And we need to have Fresno-side access.”

So did Rudd’s comments sway your vote?

“Yeah,” Vance said. “I mean, we can’t go it alone. We have to be able to work with the city.”

Vance is correct about that. The city of Fresno already operates and maintains the existing section of the Lewis S. Eaton Trail, which will be extended by about 2½ miles into River West. Even though the city won’t be paying for O&M on the new segment from its own coffers, there will certainly have to be a working agreement.

Rudd’s comments were a clear indication the city would only partner if the vote went one way.

Either that, or it was a helluva bluff.

Despite my preference for Alternative 1 (as well as access at Palm/Nees, just not through Spano Park), I don’t fault Vance for changing her mind. A decision had to be made. Her motion also included several amendments, “specific benchmark accomplishments” in the words of board president Andreas Borgeas, that must be met within 12 months or Alternative 1 will be reconsidered.

Husband and wife Bill and Marlene Youpel show their support for Alternative 5B during Wednesday’s San Joaquin River Conservancy board meeting at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District. JOHN WALKER

That stipulation (also proffered by Brand and others) should not affect the project’s overall timeline, since there is so much else that needs to be done.

“Madera-side only access was not acceptable – we had to have Fresno-side access,” Vance said. “Given what we heard today I was concerned if we had approved Alternative 1 we would have more fighting and stalling and end up with no Fresno-side access.”

Part of me wishes the board approved Riverview Drive, just to see if the city and mayor would hold firm on their stance of non-cooperation or bend to the will of the people. (I suspect the latter.)

Spano Park does represent progress. When built, the new roadway will provide much-needed access to the river bottom from a well-traveled intersection.

Just wish the city didn’t resort to coercion to get its way.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

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