marek-warszawski

River West debate has raged long enough. Time for board to decide, and us to accept

This was supposed to be a park. It’s still undeveloped after 14 years

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.
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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.

At some point during the lengthy and often heated debate over the most tantalizing but unrealized public land in Fresno, we’ve lost sight of something central.

Something that should help us move on after the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board (hopefully) reaches a consensus during Wednesday’s meeting at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District hall.

Both sides want the public to have access to the 508-acre River West Open Space Area. To be able to stroll near the San Joaquin River. Bike along a 2½-mile extension of the Lewis S. Eaton Trail. Launch a kayak or canoe. Cast a fishing line.

We’re arguing over access. How to get people who will use this park from the city streets to the river bottom.

This argument can’t continue forever. A decision must be reached. Because otherwise River West will remain what it is today: an unmanaged no-man’s land dotted with homeless camps and increasingly littered with trash.

See the standing-room only Fresno City Council Chambers and hear from one of the 55 speakers during the public comment portion of the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board meeting on the River West plan.

Readers know my views. Ideally, River West would have three access points: the Perrin Avenue undercrossing off Highway 41, Riverview Drive in the upscale Woodward Bluffs area and something from near Palm and Nees avenues.

The decision before the board is more limited. Its 14 members only get to select between Riverview Drive and a city of Fresno-backed plan to construct a new road from Palm/Nees via Spano Park. (Both options would include Perrin Avenue, which requires a 5-mile drive each way from Fresno – if you don’t walk or bike through Woodward Park.)

MAP

If it were me on the dais, I’d vote for Riverview Drive (Alternative 1) to finally get this long-stalled project moving, then direct staff to come up with a more elegant solution for Palm/Nees than what has been presented (Alternative 5B).

“Nowhere else in Fresno does California’s second-longest river run closer to more residents of Fresno.”

I wrote those words about Palm/Nees in 2014, and nothing’s changed. Access from this busy intersection would best serve the public as well as alleviate traffic from Riverview Drive. I just think that Alternative 5B is a clumsy and unnecessarily expensive way to go about that.

But rather than spend the rest of our time together lobbying for my point of view, let’s acknowledge a truth that seems to have been lost: Both options get us closer to the river.

Let’s acknowledge a truth that seems to have been lost: Both options get us closer to the river.

Which, I honestly believe, is the ultimate goal of everyone involved in this debate.

Yes, even the neighborhood group. Now, if you would’ve asked me in 2008 or 2011, “Are the bluff homeowners trying to keep the public out of River West?” my response would’ve been “Absolutely.” But in 2017, I can’t say that in good conscience. When Pete Weber and Kristine Walter sit across a table and tell me, “We absolutely want people to have access to the river,” I don’t think they’re lying.

What’s changed? From my perspective, a few things: A change in the group’s leadership; public outcry over the years of delays; and a realization that this gorgeous piece of land has become overrun by homeless people and litterbugs and needs to be managed.

Louis Moosios, a San Joaquin River landowner and fishing guide, shows the sights and sounds of the river where it borders Fresno between highways 99 and 41.

Yes, even our local politicians are on board to get this settled. The same ones who’ve backed the neighborhood group all these years and even amended the city’s General Plan in their favor. (Which I still think is bogus.)

Still, I don’t believe Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas or Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau, both of whom serve on the conservancy board, or Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, a former board member of the nonprofit San Joaquin River Parkway Trust, are trying to keep people from the river.

Each strongly backs Alternative 5B, of course. But starting with Brandau during last month’s meeting and later with Brand and Borgeas in private, all three are ready to enforce strict progress reports and conditions. Meaning that, if after a set amount of time the 5B roadway proves either infeasible or prohibitively expensive, Alternative 1 becomes the path forward. (A belated thanks to Brandau for the cute video and disproved charge of “fake news.” The credibility has never been higher.)

“I know that Fresno needs more parks, and River West is a golden opportunity for that,” Brand said. “In one year we’re going to know if (5B) works or if it’s not going to work.”

HOMELESSCAMP
A homeless encampment sits next to the water along the San Joaquin River just north of Fresno in August 2017. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Which alternative will the conservancy board choose Wednesday? Difficult to say. Brandau’s motion to approve 5B was voted down 9-5 last month. However, Madera County Supervisor Brett Frazier made it clear he preferred that option and only wanted more information on Alternative 1.

So really, more like 8-6. The narrowest of majorities and one vote from a 7-7 stalemate that would likely mean more years of delays because contracts pertaining to the environmental review expire at the end of 2017. (The board is supposed to have 15 members, but one of three citizen representative seats is vacant. Extremely poor timing.)

We’ve been arguing over River West for so long that inaction has become the bigger problem.

Several parties have their attorneys locked and loaded. Maybe this is naive of me, but I can only hope everyone keeps the lawsuits in their holsters. Any legal challenge to the board’s decision can only be interpreted as self-interest being placed ahead of the common good.

We’ve been arguing over River West for so long that inaction has become the bigger problem. Any progress by the board brings us closer to the river. It’s time for the board to act, and for the rest of us to accept.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

If you go

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

When: 10 a.m. Wednesday

Where: Clovis Veterans Memorial District auditorium, 808 Fourth St., Clovis

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