Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

City’s reports on River West are interesting

The Fresno City Council at 5 p.m. Thursday will tackle two action items on the River West project. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what’s going on here.

First, let me emphasize that the fault is mine. Marek Warszawski, my long-time newsroom colleague, did a superb job with his Sunday A-1 story on the project. His recent blog added more depth and context.

Here’s my confusion:

1.) River West is part of a larger San Joaquin River Parkway project. The bigger project has been more than 30 years in the making. It’s a regional effort. If ever there was a project deemed too important to fail, the 22-mile parkway is it. The reputation of Fresno, in particular, couldn’t handle a parkway failure. The same holds true for a lot of well-known folks.

2.) What’s the definition of success for the parkway? Besides its completion, I mean. I’m just guessing, but I’d say a successful parkway is one that gets a lot of use as intended (walkers, joggers, bicyclists, nature-lovers, etc.). The parkway would be ever-improving. The parkway would add identifiable financial value to the region and, in particular, Fresno. The parkway would not be a burden on neighbors. The parkway’s operation and maintenance would not harm the general fund of any contiguous government agency. The parkway would have its own secure source of money, one capable of relatively painless growth when necessary. Bottom line: The publicly-funded parkway will have to pass the litmus test of democracy.

3.) What would define parkway failure? Limited use. A routine use of the parkway by only a narrow segment of the region’s (and Fresno’s) diverse population. A parkway that turns into a deteriorating asset. Crime and blight. A parkway that becomes a haven for the homeless. Financial chaos. A parkway with poor leadership. A parkway beset by jurisdictional war. A parkway ravaged by class war.

4.) The parkway is to run 22 miles from Friant Dam to Highway 99. Fresno is the only incorporated city along that stretch. That may change once Rio Mesa on the Madera County side of the San Joaquin River is up and running. Rio Mesa figures to be decades away, if it ever happens. The parkway out in the wilderness below Friant Dam will be used largely by the adventurous and kids on field trips. Public judgment on the completed parkway’s success or failure over the next 50 years will revolve almost exclusively on how the parkway does in the Fresno metropolitan area.

5.) The River West project for years to come will be ground zero for determining whether the parkway succeeds or fails in the Fresno metropolitan area. There are about 400 acres on the Fresno side, about 750 acres on the Madera County side. Not much has been built yet.

6.) It’s still not clear to me how River West will get built. I can’t figure out who’s responsible for paying the maintenance and operational costs and maintaining a healthy operational reserve. I’ve learned over the years at City Hall that maintenance and operational chores are tough to define and almost always cost more than expected.

7.) That brings us to Thursday’s 5 p.m. City Council meeting. There are two items on the agenda.

8.) The first item is this (according to a Public Works staff report): “Staff recommends that the City Council approve the assignment of the city of Fresno’s consultant services agreement with URS to the San Joaquin River Conservancy to complete an on-going California Environmental Quality Act review for the Lewis S. Eaton Trail-River West project, ….”

If I correctly interpret the staff report, City Hall and the Conservancy had a deal. They would work together on the River West environmental impact report. The money for this work would come from state bond funds controlled by the Conservancy and designed to get the 22-mile parkway up and running.

At one point, City Hall and the conservancy thought the EIR for River West would be a snap. They’d issue a mitigated negative declaration (i.e. no need to worry about anything — just us bird-watchers here), then get the shovels and hammers ready for things like trail extensions and bathrooms.

Then City Hall and the Conservancy decided to do a full-blown EIR. I don’t know what “full-blown” means in the context of EIR. But I hear that term used a lot at City Hall hearings in regard to environmental impact reports. It’s safe to assume “full-blown” means time-consuming, highly-detailed and expensive.

“In 2008, the Conservancy and the City of Fresno jointly initiated planning and environmental review for the proposed Project (River West) to be located on the Conservancy’s Spano property and on adjacent City property next to Freeway 41,” the staff report says.

Here, apparently, is where the City Hall and the Conservancy became partners. I’m assuming the consultant’s contract is the City Hall-Conservancy marriage license.

“It was anticipated that in Initial Study-Mitigated Negative Declaration was the appropriate CEQA document for the Project, with the City as the lead agency,” the staff report says.

It apparently here that we’re told the Neg Dec was the original CEQA/EIR game plan. But it’s interesting the way this sentence begins: “It was anticipated ….” I looked and looked on City Clerk’s web site for a paper trail memorializing the fact that City Hall was the lead agency on the EIR journey. I couldn’t find it. This portion of the staff report — “It was anticipated …” — seems to say that the City Hall and the Conservancy never signed a legal document identifying City Hall as the lead agency.

I chatted briefly with Public Works Director Patrick Wiemiller on Monday about this issue. Wiemiller said he knows of no such document. He said he’s never considered City Hall to be the lead agency on anything connected with River West. He said he’s always been quick to correct the record whenever a City Council member in the past has suggested from the dais that City Hall is the lead agency on River West’s EIR.

If Wiemiller is correct, then City Hall never dropped its role as River West EIR lead agency because it never had that role in the first place.

“The Second Amendment to the Agreement with URS (the consultant) will make it possible to complete the necessary documentation for the EIR for the (River West) Project,” the staff report says. “The Agreement between the Conservancy and the City expired December 31, 2012.”

So, as of January 1, 2013, the official marriage between City Hall and the Conservancy died. They may still be friends. But they’ve got no legal connection, at least with this EIR business.

But there’s no River West project if the EIR doesn’t get done. And to hear Parkway supporters tell it, River West has to get done if the Parkway is to be completed.

City Hall says it doesn’t want River West to die. After all, that’s why the Council is tackling this issue at 5 p.m. Thursday. A simple transfer of the city’s portion of the URS contract to the Conservancy will keep the CEQA/EIR process moving forward.

“The assigned Agreement will require the remaining work to prepare an EIR to be completed by URS under the direction and management of the Conservancy,” the staff report says. “The Project is funded by previously authorized Conservancy bond funds. The Conservancy will assume the role of lead agency, including the decision-making authorities and risks that rest with those responsibilities.”

Now, there are three sentences in the above paragraph. Please re-read that last sentence.

Why is the city telling the Conservancy that the Conservancy will assume lead-agency status? Is that a command? If so, where is the city’s authority to make such a command? Is it a request? If so, “will assume” is an imprecise way of making it. And why is the city reminding the Conservancy that lead-agency status on the EIR entails decision-making and risks and responsibilities? Is the Conservancy full of children? Or is City Hall going out of its way to make clear to the entire world that River West belongs lock, stock and barrel to the Conservancy?

That’s the end of the staff report’s executive summary. The report includes some history. In this section, we learn that City Hall and the Conservancy, after watching the EIR get put on the backburner for two years due to the state’s money woes, decided in November 2011 to amend their agreement to pay for the full-blown EIR.

“The Conservancy agreed to amend the Agreement with the City but was unable to indemnify the City in the amended Agreement to defend it from potential legal challenges,” the staff report says. “….The assigned Agreement will require the remaining work to prepare the EIR to be completed by URS under the direction and management of the Conservancy.”

For my sake, let me review.

* The 22-mile Parkway is the most important cultural treasure to come our way since Europeans came to this section of the Valley. But it’s not finished.

* The River West project, smack dab in the middle of the Parkway’s urbanized portion, is pivotal to the Parkway’s success. River West is still only a plan.

* River West doesn’t become reality until someone shoulders all the burdens and risks of being lead agency on the EIR. Nobody is the lead agency at this point.

* City Hall says it has never been the lead agency and never wanted to be the lead agency on the EIR.

* In November 2011, the city asked the Conservancy to indemnity the city for any legal risks connected to an expanded scope of an EIR that had partners but no lead agency.

* The conservancy said no to the city’s indemnification request.

* The city turned around and said to the Conservancy: We’re getting out of the River West/EIR game, totally and completely.

* And the city said to the Conservancy: As we’re handing over our share of the consultant’s contract, we’re going to designate you, the Conservancy, as the EIR’s lead agency, an agency that must unilaterally shoulder all legal risks associated with an EIR.

I’m confused. Why would the Conservancy shoot down the city’s indemnification request, then turn around and willingly accept lead agency status and get all the financial risks that caused it to say no to the city in the first place?

I guess I wouldn’t be so confused if the staff report’s accompanying documents included a letter from the Conservancy board saying: “Sure, give us lead agency status — we love it!”

But for now, I’m assuming the Conservancy has not officially accepted lead-agency status for the EIR.

9.) The second River West item that the council will tackle on Thursday at 5 p.m. involves suggested City Hall recommendations. The staff report was written by Assistant City Manager/Parks Director Bruce Rudd.

“Recommendation: That council approves the following list of policy recommendations with regard to the proposed Fresno River West Project and to direct the City Manager or his/her designee to incorporate these recommendations as part of the City of Fresno’s General Plan Update.”

The recommendations involve traffic rules for neighborhoods on the bluffs above River West, where cars are to be parked and where the Eaton trail extension should go.

This I understand. Fresno is a charter city. If the City Council wants to approve some recommendations to itself, it can.

“The Administration, in conjunction with Council District 2, has met on numerous occasions with various stakeholders to discuss the impacts of the proposed Fresno River West project,” Rudd’s report says. “Based on these discussions, a set of policy recommendations have been developed that are intended to reflect the expectations of the City of Fresno and the community in regard to this project and should be given strong consideration by the San Joaquin Conservancy when evaluating different alternatives developed during the project’s environmental review process.”

Now I get it. These aren’t recommendations and they’re not for the benefit of Council President Blong Xiong and council members Steve Brandau, Oliver Baines, Paul Caprioglio, Sal Quintero, Lee Brand and Clint Olivier.

These are marching orders from a charter city with authority to make land-use decisions throughout its 105 square miles. These marching orders are being given to the Conservancy in no uncertain terms. The city giving these marching orders to the Conservancy is the same city that gave lead-agency status on the River West EIR to the Conservancy. The city that gave lead-agency status to the Conservancy and is giving these marching orders to the Conservancy is the same city that reminded the Conservancy that, once it embarked on the full-blown River West EIR, it would have “decision-making” authority.

Well, no, I don’t get it. It sounds like the city is trying to get off the saddle and remain in the saddle at the same time.

Rudd’s report to the council concludes with two key recommendations.

* “Development or public access (to River West) should be avoided until adequate and sustainable funding needed to support annual operations and maintenance has been identified.”

My thought: Or what?

* “The San Joaquin River Bluff and Protection Ordinance should be implemented prior to the completion of the project.”

My thought: Or what?

Permit me to include one more sentence from Rudd’s report to the council:

“Although the City originally assumed the lead agency role for the project, issues related to indemnification and the City’s ability to adequately fund the long term operations and maintenance of this facility has resulted in an agreement whereby the Conservancy would assume the role of lead agency, including the approval of the project’s Environmental Impact Report.”

It’s apparently the case that some at City Hall think the city was never the lead agency and others think the city was, at one point, the lead agency. It’s apparently the case that the Conservancy, once it gets all of the URS contract in its possession, is the EIR lead agency by default or otherwise the contract would have no oversight. And it’s apparently the case that City Hall as recently as last year was seriously thinking about paying for the long term operations and maintenance of River West even as it was seeking volunteers to handle the maintenance of dozens of existing parks throughout the city.

None of this makes sense to me.

Something else must be going on.

Here’s my guess: Most people see River West as a sure-fire good thing without any downside. But some people see it as a political and financial landmine. And most of the latter reside in City Hall.

If so, they may have a good point.

* What about cops?

* What about fire engines?

* What about the homeless?

* If a homeless encampment comes, who has the backbone to raze it and risk a lawsuit?

* How much in the River West operational reserve?

* Who operates River West?

* With what operating funds?

* Can the Conservancy and City Hall trust each other?

* Where does the San Joaquin River Parkway Trust fit into all this?

* Will the public demand that City Hall be the fail-safe should the Conservancy stumble?

* Does City Hall have the money to be that fail-safe?

* Why would Council Member Olivier give a hoot about River West when he’s tried for two years to get Martin Ray Reilly Park built in one of Fresno’s poorest neighborhoods?

* Why would Council President Xiong give a hoot about River West when he’s tried for six years to get the Universally Accessible Park built to serve the central San Joaquin Valley’s disabled?

* Why should Measure C funds possibly go to River West operational costs when no one offered Measure C funds to Olivier and Xiong for operational costs for their parks?

* Why not do to River West supporters what City Hall has essentially done to neighbors around the Universally Accessible Park site — Approve a community facilities district to raise the necessary operational and maintenance and reserve funds or kiss your park good-bye?

* Why is another big-ticket cultural amenity going into north Fresno when Council Member Baines is desperate to get a good walking/riding trail built in or near his historic West Fresno neighborhoods?

* Who’s paying for an extension of Bus Rapid Transit into West Fresno and out to River West to ensure that the people walking and jogging and bicycling and picnicking along the beautiful San Joaquin River are just as likely to be from the neighborhood of Elm and Church avenues as from the neighborhood of Van Ness and Sierra avenues?

* And, finally, when things at River West fail to turn out perfect 100 percent of the time, what reason is there to assume that City Hall (regardless of how hard it tries to hedge its responsibility) won’t be blamed? And what reason is there to assume that the taxpayer won’t be forced to pick up the tab?

Some things are forever: People expect too much. Disappointment is bitter. City Hall’s to blame.

The past 10 years have taught these lessons to some city officials.

Maybe that’s why, on Thursday at 5 p.m. in the council chamber, we could see quite a fight: City Hall trying to kill River West with delaying tactics vs. the Conservancy and its supporters trying to manipulate City Hall.

The names change, but not the game.


MollybyGolly says:

Thank you for this well-written piece. I’d been doing my darndest to follow this issue, but this is the first comprehensive piece to lay out the issues, nuances, and inconsistencies in an easy-to-follow format. Let’s hope that the entire City Council (and appropriate staff) are also reading this, too.

Nicely done, sir.

JJJ says:

“Why should Measure C funds possibly go to River West operational costs when no one offered Measure C funds to Olivier and Xiong for operational costs for their parks?”

That part is easy to answer. Measure C is for transportation. The Eaton trail is a valuable bike trail – a bike highway. The extension will provide a comfortable link from north Fresno (think Copper) to Palm/Nees which can help remove some traffic from Friant, which in short order will be very congested if the projects proposed for Millerton lake go through.

The other two parks are simply that, parks. Great assets, but not transportation.

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