Marek Warszawski

How Madera County growth can make Fresno’s dream of a river parkway come true

Public outcry over a proposed housing and golf course development along the San Joaquin River just north of Fresno is what led to the idea of a river parkway.

Thirty-five years later, efforts are underway to turn Ball Ranch and its neighbor, Ledger Island, into a 520-acre regional park that would create public access along one of the most scenic stretches of the envisioned 22-mile river greenbelt between Friant Dam and Highway 99.

Who’s behind this push – and willing to provide a crucial funding source? The developer of Tesoro Viejo, a master-planned community located across the river and over the bluff in Madera County.

Yes, Madera County. Where they’re busy building a new city.

Opinion

Which only goes to show what’s true about rivers is also true about our region’s long, meandering and in some places completely stalled effort to build the San Joaquin River Parkway.

You never know what’s around the next bend.

How we got here

For those unfamiliar with the history, here’s a condensed version:

The San Joaquin River Parkway concept was born in the mid-1980s out of citizen concern over river bottom development, specifically at Ball Ranch. In 1992, the state added its heft by establishing the San Joaquin River Conservancy, an agency responsible for assembling the parkway.

In the years since, some $33 million in state funds and bonds have been spent on property acquisitions from willing sellers, to the point where almost two-thirds of the 5,900 acres originally designated for the parkway are in public hands. (Nearly $30 million remains in the piggy bank for additional land purchases and infrastructure improvements.)

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The San Joaquin River as seen in a drone image about 3 miles north of Fresno, approximate site of a potential 520-acre regional park combining two state-owned properties that belong to the San Joaquin River Conservancy. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

However, with a few exceptions (i.e. Sycamore Island Park, Jensen River Ranch, Friant Cove), many of these properties sit unused behind locked gates. Why? Because local municipalities and agencies have been unable to come up with money needed to cover their long-term operations and maintenance. Which is a stipulation of their opening.

So today, as we stare down the 2020s, the situation along the river parkway has sort of reversed itself. To take the final step of making places such as Ball Ranch and Ledger Island accessible for public recreation and enjoyment, we need help from a developer.

In this case, a developer selling homes on the Madera County side of the river.

Kind of ironic, no?

“I don’t think Fresno developers have ever looked at the parkway as an asset to the region,” said John Shelton, executive director of the San Joaquin Conservancy.

“Where now there are a few on the Madera County side, even though they’re Fresno folks, that have that vision.”

Connecting the counties

Bob and Brent McCaffrey fit that description. Their company, The McCaffrey Group, is a longtime Fresno home builder that partnered with Lyles Diversified on Tesoro Viejo.

Parks, trails and natural open space are important to the McCaffreys. About one quarter of Tesoro Viejo’s 1,600 total acreage has been set aside for these purposes, including a planned 15-mile trail network.

Tesoro Viejo is not adjacent to the San Joaquin. However, the partners own property on the river bottom in addition to a 0.7-mile dirt road that leads from a corner of the development to a bluff overlooking Ball Ranch and Ledger Island. Plans call for this road to become a paved walking and cycling pathway with access to the river.

Crucially for Fresno residents, the McCaffreys also own a narrow strip of land off Friant Road that runs between Ball Ranch and the Sumner Peck Ranch Winery (which, coincidentally, is for sale).

On this property, the McCaffreys envision a two-lane road, with room for parking, that would provide Fresno County access to the planned regional park.

Even though it is still early in the process, the proposal holds much promise. Ball Ranch, with bass ponds that have only been open sporadically for public fishing, and Ledger Island, with its impressive valley oak forest, are jewels that should be treasured rather than stashed away.

“We just want to open all this up for everyone to enjoy,” Brent McCaffrey told me during a recent tour.

“We’re connecting the two counties,” Bob McCaffrey added. “It just feels like the right thing to do.”

‘A win for everyone’

To provide the funding mechanism for operations and maintenance of the regional park, the McCaffreys formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit named the Tesoro Viejo Conservancy. The way they explained it to me, one-tenth of 1% of every home sold or resold at Tesoro Viejo (in real numbers, that’s $300 from a $300,000 sale) will be set aside for the conservancy, whose board of directors held its first meeting last week.

In addition, the nonprofit will receive a portion of the proceeds from events such as last Sunday’s inaugural Tesoro Viejo Fall Classic Half Marathon.

“It’s a win for everyone,” said Henry R. Perea, the former Fresno County supervisor who sits on the Tesoro Viejo Conservancy Board. “This is the kind of (river) access people around here have been dreaming about for years.”

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Ledger Island on the San Joaquin River north of Fresno as seen in a drone image. The state-owned property, along with neighboring Ball Ranch, could potentially form a 520-acre regional park. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

In September 2018, the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board of Directors unanimously approved an “Intent to Cooperate in Public Access Application” for the proposed regional park. The McCaffreys then submitted an application to the State Lands Commission, the agency responsible for management and protection of California’s natural resources, which was recently rejected due to a lack of specificity.

“I view that as a good thing,” Brent McCaffrey said of the rejection, “because it told us everything we need to do.”

The developers plan to resubmit the application. Once it is approved, the State Lands Commission would serve as the lead agency through the environmental review and public engagement process.

“We have an agreement to get to the agreement,” said Shelton of the San Joaquin River Conservancy. “There are still a number of steps we have to go through and modifications that must be worked out. But the general structure of what they’re proposing is workable.”

Sharon Weaver, executive director of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, the nonprofit that formed in 1988 to help establish the parkway and educate the public about the river, is similarly encouraged.

“We need to make sure it’s planned carefully and that we understand all the details before all the approvals are in place,” Weaver said. “But the concept is great, and (the McCaffrey’s) interest is great.”

Formula to grow the parkway

The McCaffreys say the only “improvement” they wish to make is an interpretive center that would also house restrooms and a snack bar. The building’s location, along with who would operate it, must still be worked out.

Other amenities, such as the location of a trail system including an extension of the Lewis S. Eaton Trail that would cross the river between Ball Ranch and Ledger Island on an existing bridge, would be in accordance with the parkway’s master plan.

“The trails are already there,” Brent McCaffrey said. “We want to use the existing trail system and to bring in the operations and maintenance (funding).”

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From the Kissing Gate on the southeastern corner of Tesoro Viejo, a 1,600-acre development in Madera County, a 0.7-mile dirt road leads to the San Joaquin River. The road will eventually become a paved multipurpose trail. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

If this formula proves successful, Shelton hopes other Madera County developers will also want to be part of helping grow the parkway. He recently met with Riverstone owner/developer Tim Jones, who plans to build a paved multipurpose trail to the river from his 2,000-acre development near Highway 41 and Avenue 12.

In addition to Riverstone, Jones also owns the 7,000-acre San Joaquin River Ranch that is slated for future development. Some of that property abuts the river.

“If you look at the development in this region, it’s always been with the river as an afterthought,” said Madera County Supervisor Brett Frazier, who also chairs the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board. “We’re trying to put it in the center. …

“That’s what people are looking for right now. It used to be a golf course and you build your homes around that. Now people want parks and open space. They want to be able to get off work and then take a trail down to the river, and that’s the sort of opportunity we want to provide.”

Meanwhile, in Fresno

That attitude stands in marked contrast to the one displayed by elected leaders from the city of Fresno, who have a long history of putting the needs of the wealthy and influential over the general public when it comes to river access.

For example, if Fresno politicians gave a fig about our enjoyment of the river, they would have never allowed the developer of the Woodward Bluffs neighborhood to build homes with backyards up against the bluff – blocking the view for everyone else.

(See Bakersfield’s Panorama Drive and Panorama Park for an example of how Fresno’s Audubon Drive should have been laid out. Everyone gets to enjoy the views of the Kern River, and the nice houses are across the street.)

For the last 10 years, those residents of Woodward Bluffs have used their influence to obstruct and delay progress on the River West Open Space Area. And now they’re suing four members of the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board over a vote that didn’t go their way.

It’s incredibly selfish and short-sighted – and oh so typical of California’s fifth-largest city.

The concept of a San Joaquin River Parkway may have been born in Fresno, but more and more it looks like we’ll need development in Madera County to make it a reality.

Editor’s note: This is the second in an ongoing series of columns by Marek Warszawski examining new growth in southern Madera County.

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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.
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