City Heavy-Handed in River Access Decision

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Near the proposed entryway to the San Joaquin River. Photo by Michael D. Evans

By Andy Hansen-Smith

Editor’s note: Andy Hansen-Smith has been attending meetings of the Fresno City Council and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors for the past seven months. He live-tweets the meetings, which you can follow at @AndyHS. He will be highlighting key issues for Community Alliance readers each month.

San Joaquin River Access

Two meetings of the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board in late 2017 addressed public access from the Fresno side of the San Joaquin River. There is currently access by driving to the Madera side of the river, but the desire by many is to give Fresnans access to this jewel of a river as well.

The November meeting was intended to hold a vote on the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the new river trail and a vote to authorize the building of an access point to the river that would include amenities such as bathrooms, parking and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance.

The many proposed access points by the River Board members were whittled down to just one on the agenda. This proposal would provide access from near the Palm Bluffs shopping center.

Other attendees preferred an access point via Riverview Drive and wanted this location to be considered as well.

The River Board includes local elected officials (Fresno Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, Fresno City Council Member Steve Brandau, Madera Supervisor Brett Frazier and Madera City Council Member William Oliver), representatives from state agencies and a few public representatives. One spot was vacant, which left the potential for a 7-7 tie, although the rumor is that this vacancy now has been filled.

The planned 2–4-hour meeting stretched into a seven hour-marathon.

About 60 citizens spoke on the issue. A common refrain was the assertion that Riverview Drive was built for a proposed 1,500-home river bottom subdivision and so provided faster construction time to getting access open to the river for the public. This road is already used by San Joaquin River Parkway and Trust staff and private landowners, as well as people parking in the nearby neighborhood and hiking down the road.

Other speakers preferred the Palm Bluffs site due to the commercial setting where picnickers could avail themselves of meal options and a local FAX (Fresno Area Transit) bus stop.

Detriments to the two access points were that Riverview Drive entailed driving through a quiet, affluent neighborhood where potential traffic issues, noise and vandalism could occur. Palm Bluffs has an old construction dump that would need mitigation, but no agency seemed willing to take on the liability of cleanup or accidents later caused by the waste area.

Several old sycamore trees would need to be removed from Palm Bluffs as well, and it would cut through the small Spanos Park. Construction costs seemed to be considerably more than Riverview Drive as the Palm Bluffs site would require the construction of a road whereas Riverview already has a road built for the proposed but ultimately abandoned subdivision. However, a cost analysis was performed for Palm Bluffs but not Riverview Drive.

This seeming thumb on the scale for the Palm Bluffs access point became a lightning rod not only for the citizens present but also for many of the board members.

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand expressed his support for Fresno having access to the river and his preference for the Palm Bluffs entrance.

The possibly contaminated dump was a major issue. Toward the latter part of the meeting, a newly formed nonprofit consisting of Riverview Drive neighbors surprised the audience and the board by saying they had struck a one-dollar deal with the Spanos family, the owners of the land where the dump is located.

They would construct a parking lot over the dump with the assurance that the capping of the dump by the parking lot asphalt would be sufficient.

At this point, the board adjourned until the December meeting with a request for a further cost analysis of Riverview Drive by city engineers. That would be a quick turnaround, but the board wanted more of an apples-to-apples comparison of the two proposed sites. The board also wanted more information on the newly created nonprofit including whether it had the funds to cover any liability concerns in case contamination were to later occur.

At the December meeting, another full house was present.

Former Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd angered many in the room when he essentially said that the city would help build the Palm Bluffs access but not the Riverview Drive access point.

An audience member shouted, “Is that a threat?” Another yelled to the out-of-town Board members that what Rudd did was called being “Fresno’d.”

Another parade of mostly Riverview Drive supporters spoke. Palm Bluffs proponents were mostly satisfied that Rudd’s pronouncement and the neighborhood nonprofit group buying the dump would be sufficient to persuade the board. The cost of the Palm Bluffs proposal seemed to miraculously drop as the meeting went on, further bolstering its merits.

A state board member who had been aghast that the city was pushing the Palm Bluffs narrative at the November meeting, despite what looked like a cheaper and less complicated alternative, sat with the Riverview Drive proponents in December. She seemed resigned that the Palm Bluffs proposal would be the only access point the city would devote its time to working on and switched her vote.

The final vote was 8-6 in favor of the Palm Bluffs access point with the stipulation that if progress on Palm Bluffs isn’t sufficient over the next 12 months, the access point automatically would switch to the Riverview Drive site.

The Riverview Drive supporters left mostly angered at the heavy hand the city placed on the proposal, seemingly in favor of an affluent neighborhood over what possibly was the more cost-effective and easier-to-build Riverview Drive site.

Previously, a member of the board had said that in Sacramento the most desired neighborhoods are the ones with public access to the American River. In time, perhaps Fresno will ultimately have many more public access points to a river that is currently often shielded and underused by its citizens.

Trash Solutions

The City of Fresno has an efficient and quick system when it comes to removing illegally dumped trash. A simple five-minute report using the City’s app FresGO will usually result in items getting picked up within a day or two as well as during its annual Operation Cleanup.

Despite the popularity of these two programs, the Solid Waste Department brought to the City Council some proposed changes to the programs due to the high cost of performing these tasks.

The department hopes to identify more illegal dumping by setting up cameras in common dumping areas. This will necessitate access to electricity, so that will limit some locations. Council members requested the ability to impound vehicles used in illicit dumping and an increase in fines for subsequent infractions. Whether someone can be caught on tape in a city of 110 square miles is another question.

One proposal for Operation Cleanup is to set up a dedicated location where residents could bring their excess oversized garbage. Of course, this is limiting for those who don’t have a vehicle to transport large items.

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Andy Hansen-Smith was born and raised in Fresno. He boomeranged back into town from Oregon in 2002. Contact him at ahansensmith@gmail.com.