Judge Not

Legal threats don’t carry weight on parkway

By R.E. Graswich
February 2023

Since 1975, when the city announced plans for the Sacramento River Parkway and bike trail, various people said they would sue to stop it. For 48 years, there were no lawsuits. There was also no parkway.

As the levee parkway and bike path finally head toward completion in the next two years, it’s fair to wonder whether litigation can slow or derail a project that’s already a half-century behind schedule.

Anyone can threaten to sue. As a young reporter at The Bee, I thought I had a scoop when a soccer team owner told me he was going to sue the government for messing with his players’ visas.

An editor told me to forget it, the paper never printed stories about “potential” lawsuits. “We wouldn’t have space for real news,” he said. My scoop—like the lawsuit—never materialized.

There are several reasons why legal threats from a few people who live near the levee have no more substance than a frustrated soccer entrepreneur. Lawsuits need serious resources. They are expensive and tough to win.

When it comes to the river parkway and bike trail, it’s hard to see anyone making a case to stop construction.

The state owns the levees and controls what happens to them. State water authorities think a paved bikeway is a good idea. It will improve flood safety. The city raised money for the bike path and promises to police it. Everyone’s in agreement.

For generations, residents in Pocket, Greenhaven, Little Pocket, South Land Park and Land Park expected the city to honor its 1975 parkway promise. Opposition comes from a handful of people whose homes back up to the levee. They use the riverfront as their private park. They want the public to keep out.

If a lawsuit is filed, it will likely focus on easements granted to state flood authorities around a century ago. The easements were given by farmers who owned the levees, even though the city’s flood defenses were mostly constructed with public funds.

The farmers didn’t want to maintain the levees. They gave the state unrestricted easements to the long, high dirt mounds that protect Sacramento. Over the decades, land changed hands, subdivisions spread, water access laws evolved and the state gained control.

It’s a stretch to claim a farmer’s 1910 property lines magically transferred to a suburban homeowner who showed up in 1999. But that’s what some households along the levee believe.

These individuals claim to own the levee, despite having no connection to the old farmers, despite there being no question about the state’s authority.

If a lawsuit is filed, plaintiffs near the levee will probably build their case around the word “recreation.” The word doesn’t appear in the easements. Since recreation isn’t spelled out, an attorney might argue recreational access was never granted. Which means no bike path.

While the old easements are simple and straightforward and give everything to the state, everything doesn’t mean everything, a lawyer might say. It means everything except recreation.

Several years ago, the city attorney anticipated this argument. The city began to offer homeowners along the levee cash to sell narrow recreational easements for the levee bike path. Some people took the money, around $25,000. Others refused. The rejectors say the city’s offer proves what they’ve claimed all along, that they really own the levee.

There was no legal need for the city to make cash offers. The city was buying something the state already owned. But the City Council made a political decision, not a legal one. The idea was to make a problem go away and avoid lawsuits.

Since the payoffs didn’t work, the city is ready for the next step: eminent domain seizures of recreational easements along the levee. This will be interesting. The city won’t grab real property, but a concept—the fantasy that a few homeowners somehow own the top of the levee.

Eminent domain should be the last step before the bike trail is paved. Don’t be surprised if a homeowner threatens to sue.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at regraswich@icloud.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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