Marek Warszawski

Fresno’s meandering efforts toward San Joaquin River access take another twist

One man is helping make the San Joaquin River Parkway less trashy

Former Fresno city councilman Tom Bohigian, acting upon an idea from his wife, Sheri, has placed four trash cans in the River West Open Space Area in an effort to keep the undeveloped and largely unmanaged property clean.
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Former Fresno city councilman Tom Bohigian, acting upon an idea from his wife, Sheri, has placed four trash cans in the River West Open Space Area in an effort to keep the undeveloped and largely unmanaged property clean.

Residents of California’s fifth-largest city are no closer to walking, biking and picnicking along the state’s second-longest river than they were 12 months ago.

Or 12 years ago, for that matter.

However – and after years of railing I can’t believe I’m writing this – that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not after a state-appointed board voted Wednesday to halt a prior decision to build a new road to the San Joaquin River bottom through Spano Park near Palm & Nees avenues.

Such a road would have met the elusive goal of providing public access to the San Joaquin River from within the Fresno city limits. However, it was also the more expensive option of the two final alternatives considered for the River West Open Space Area (by $1 million but probably more), came at the cost of more than a dozen mature sycamore trees and required far more logistical and engineering hurdles.

As a result of a subsequent vote by the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board, access through Riverview Drive in the nearby Woodward Bluffs neighborhood (Alternative 1) will be reconsidered.

Those two votes undid a December 2017 decision by the same body to approve the Palm & Nees road (Alternative 5B) under the stipulation that several benchmarks regarding land-ownership, easement and permitting issues were met over the next 12 months.

Why does Fresno lack a trail system or other river amenities found in other Valley cities? The River West area on the city's northern border is the final piece to making it happen.

Wednesday’s meeting at the Fresno City Council chamber was, in essence, a progress report. And by a 7-7 tie vote, the 14-member board made up of elected officials, appointees from state and local agencies and two citizen representatives went against its own staff’s recommendation and decided not to proceed with Alternative 5B.

Gotta admit, I was more than a little surprised by what transpired. And judging by the reaction, so were most of the people in the room.

In one respect, it’s frustrating because we’re not any closer to getting managed access (think parking lots, restrooms and a 2.4-mile extension of the Lewis S. Eaton Trail) at River West — and just spent another year spinning our wheels.

But in the big picture, this is positive news. Alternative 5B is a turkey. Yes, it would get us to the river, and from a well-traveled intersection. But no rational-thinking person can stand on the northern edge of Spano Park, trace the steep and circuitous path down the bluff the road would have to take to avoid a cement collecting pond at the bottom and think, “Let’s build here!”

Especially when there are already two existing roads to the river bottom, one from behind the nearby Park Place Shopping Center and the other at Riverview Drive.

Those two roads, I’ve long argued, should both be access points to River West. Problem is, we (meaning the public) only own the one through Riverview Drive. The other is owned by developer Cliff Tutelian and leads to property not contained within the 508-acre parcel purchased with $10 million in state and Packard Foundation money in 2003.

Yes, 2003. If we’re not careful it’s going to be 2023 before there’s any sort of ribbon-cutting.

River West map
The San Joaquin River Conservancy Board, in December 2017, voted 8-6 to build a new road to the River West Open Space Area from Spano Park near Palm & Nees avenues. There will also be a Perrin Avenue access point. Riverview Drive will remain open to cyclists and pedestrians. Tim Sheehan

While progress on Alternative 5B has been halted, it is “still the project” in the words of Brett Frazier, the Madera County Supervisor and board chair. Frazier cast one of the seven “yes” votes. The others were Fresno City Councilmember Steve Brandau, Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig, Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District Director Kacey Auston, Madera Irrigation District Director Carl Janzen and citizen representatives Paul Gibson and Bryn Forhan.

“We wasted a whole year,” Frazier said. “Good work was being done. All the benchmarks were actually met except for the easement was not signed and recorded. It’s signed. It just needs to go through the process to be recorded.”

The seven “No” votes on 5B were by Madera City Councilmember Santos Garcia, Department of Fish and Wildlife Regional Manager Julie Vance, Wildlife Conservation Board Executive Director John Donnelly, Natural Resources Agency Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie Alvis, Millerton Lake State Recreation Area Superintendent Kent Gresham, State Lands Commission Executive Officer Jennifer Lucchesi and Department of Finance Program Budget Manager Karen Finn.

Garcia, Magsig and Auston are all new board members. They did not participate in the December 2017 decision. Janzen voted against 5B 13 months ago but supported it going forward Wednesday. Vance went the opposite direction.

“I had serious questions about the viability of 5B a year ago, but the 5B proponents stated those things were minor and easily resolvable,” Vance said. “If they were easily resolvable then they could get them done within a year – and that didn’t happen.”

The board has 14 members, an even number, because one of the citizen representative seats is vacant. It is supposed to be held by landowner on the Madera County side of the river. However, former Gov. Jerry Brown did not approve the one name sent to him by the Madera County Board of Supervisors.

So what happens next? Alternative 1 (access via Riverview Drive) will be reconsidered at a future board meeting, probably in March. Which means we’ll have to listen the same arguments all over again.

“Given how divided people are over this, there was no way to make everyone happy,” Vance said. “But at the end of the day I hope we get public access sometime soon. That’s what we all want and really, given some of the remaining obstacles, I think starting fresh with Alternative 1 would be faster.”

The other thing to watch will be the response from the city of Fresno and Mayor Lee Brand, a staunch 5B supporter. Before the December 2017 vote, Assistant City Manager Bruce Rudd (since retired) 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.

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

At the same time, Brand sent a letter to the San Joaquin River Conservancy stating his “public commitment” that if “after 12 to 18 months of good faith effort” the Palm & Nees road “is found to be technically infeasible, I would recommend the Conservancy revisit Riverview Drive as a potentially access point.”

Which is exactly what’s happening, so stay tuned. Fresno’s meandering saga with San Joaquin River access just took another twist.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.