Homeowners seek to restrict San Joaquin River access

FRESNO, Calif.

Residents of the mansion like homes along the overlooking bluffs are squaring off those who want easier public access to the area.

The stretch between Highway 41 on the West and Palm Avenue on the East is just part of the 22 mile long parkway that will eventually run from Friant Dam to Highway 99. It's controlled by the State of California through the San Joaquin River Conservancy.

The Conservancy and a related group the San Joaquin River Parkway Trust would like to enhance public access to the 450 acres on the Fresno County side of the river. Access on the Madera County side has already been secured.

The parkway would like to extend a now dead end street called Riverview Drive down to the river bottom, and construct a parking lot.

The Deputy Director of the San Joaquin River Parkway Trust, Sharon Weaver says easier public access is a priority.

"It's a city of Fresno site, its bigger than any other city park its meant to be a regional attraction for the million residents that live in Fresno and Madera counties and we want to make sure that all the people who want to use this can get here easily."

But residents living on the bluffs overlooking the river say that's a problem. Pete Mehas is a member of the Bluffs Homeowners Association.

"Respect the rights of the homeowners not to have traffic in a residential neighborhood."

Mehas and other members of the Bluffs homeowners association have asked the city council to put a restriction on vehicle access in the city's general plan.

The only parking lot now planned is at the eastern edge of the area, by Highway 41. But getting there requires driving over the river, into Madera County and back. Weaver says that doesn't make sense.

"We want to make sure people can get to the property easily and in our minds that means allowing vehicle access off of Riverview Drive, rather than having to drive off of Highway 41 an extra ten mile round trip."

Riverview Drive is now a two block long street that dead ends above the river. Weaver notes it was originally built to access a huge development proposed on the river bottom.

"The street that enters this property was actually designed to serve a 16 hundred unit development here in the river bottom that was designed include houses, condominiums restaurants a golf course even a hotel."

Flooding concerns stopped the development years ago, and the owner sold the land to the Conservancy. Conservancy Director, Melinda Marks says the debate over access and parking is premature.

"The appropriate time to make real decisions about it is when we have completed the environmental review of all of the impacts."

The environmental review is expected to take several months, and involve rounds of public hearings. The City of Fresno has surrendered its involvement with the Parkway project out of fears it will cost money. But the city can still have an impact. The conservancy is required to consider local land use plans in their decisions. If the city council decides to say river access violates the city's General Plan, it must be considered. But Marks says it's just one of many things to consider.

"It's comment. It's their position and recommendation and perhaps not binding."

But it could create grounds for more challenges. Mehas says it's not about stopping the parkway project.

"The good thing is we all want it. I mean this is not anybody objecting to the parkway, we want it but we're saying lets do this in a pragmatic, fiscally responsible way everybody can enjoy that's all we want."

But Weaver maintains the only way everybody can enjoy the parkway, is to let them get to it.

"It was purchased to be an area where people can come out and enjoy the river, they can picnic, they can boat, they can ride their bikes they can bring their children"

The conservancy has $30 million in state bond funds to build the parkway. Work could get underway within a couple of years. One hang up is securing funding to maintain the Parkway once it is built. That's one reason the city administration decided not to participate, fearing the city would be on the hook for maintenance costs.

Whatever the city council decides, the conservancy is preparing plans with various access and parking configurations for the public to consider.

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