Last Breath

River access foes have no fight left

By R.E. Graswich
August 2019

There’s one excellent reason why the Sacramento River Parkway trail is finally ready to roll past those obscene levee gates in Pocket and Greenhaven. The homeowners who despise public access have run out of gas.

For decades, a tiny but influential group of homeowners along the river have frightened City Hall with loud voices and litigation threats. They blocked public access to the river for 46 years, fencing themselves into private backyard compounds along the levee. Their success at self-isolation was a tribute to the effectiveness of political influence and perpetual whining.

Now the whines are down to whimpers, reduced to a few meek and tired pleas about privacy and security.

When the Sacramento City Council voted unanimously in May to proceed with eminent domain and buy strips of land for a 1.85-mile levee parkway extension between Garcia Bend Park and Arabella Way, only two riverfront property owners bothered to show up and complain at City Hall. A third homeowner sent a lawyer to do the complaining.

Don Murphy, who holds a large parcel in Pocket and is the most outspoken land baron along the river, dusted off shopworn concerns about “vandalism and threats” raining down on his patch of heaven.

Bizarrely, he told the council no one would use the bike trail from Pocket to Downtown, and suggested putting public access to a public vote. If Murphy’s goal was to present untethered logic, it was a solid performance.

Another property owner, Jack Gullans, worried about being held personally liable if someone drowned in the river near Gullans’ home. An attorney in the audience, Jim Houpt, helpfully explained how the parkway indemnifies homeowners against such lawsuits.

Houpt offered his counsel for free, but the same probably can’t be said for Brian Manning, a lawyer who informed the council he represented a riverfront property owner. Manning apparently specializes in property law. He read passages from a parkway Environmental Impact Report and gave his opinion on eminent domain semantics. He won zero hearts and minds.

 

And with that, the foes of public access melted away. With the approval of eminent domain and financial support budgeted for the parkway plan, the City Council politically smashed the locks that blocked river access in Pocket and Greenhaven for five decades.

Councilmember Rick Jennings, who turned his political career into a mandate for river access, has taken a well-deserved victory lap this summer. Public access to stretches of the levee in Pocket would not have happened without Jennings.

In wrangling support from all eight council colleagues, Jennings found a key ally in Jeff Harris. The representative from River Park has his own coven of residents who hate public access. He has heard many fictions about “vandalism and threats” and says, “People bring up the same concerns every time.”

As for vandals ransacking Pocket neighborhoods via the levee, Harris points to this fact: Public activity on the levee means fewer problems. “More energetic use on the trail discourages homelessness there. We’ve found that to be true,” he says.

Just one City Council member tends to oppose public access to the Sacramento River—Steve Hansen, whose district includes Downtown, Land Park and Little Pocket. Hansen’s distaste for river access in Little Pocket is a mystery. He won’t explain it.

But if Hansen wants to steer his political future into the rocks, his chance may come. He’s up for re-election next year. Homelessness has exploded on his watch. Opposing public access to our crown jewel—the Sacramento River—could finish him.

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

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