War of the Roses

Secretive group threatens McKinley Park garden

By Cecily Hastings
June 2019

During the last 18 months, my McKinley Park neighborhood has experienced a battle over the city’s plan to construct a large underground water vault. The project will go beneath McKinley Park’s eastern side where the baseball field sits.

We’ve had contentious community meetings, with neighbor against neighbor. Most water vault supporters—I am one of them—tended to stay out of the battle and let the city deal with the small but intense group of vault opponents.

While the city moves forward with the project, some foes are defiant. Last summer, several neighbors erected lawn signs expressing opposition to the vault. As of this writing in early May, there are seven large banners (3 feet by 8 feet) installed along H Street between Alhambra Boulevard and 33rd Street.

And while the group against the vault claims it wants to “Save McKinley Park,” its actions are hurting efforts to preserve and maintain the McKinley Rose Garden—a major East Sacramento attraction.

The majestic 1,200-bush public rose garden was restored with $150,000 of private funds raised by Friends of East Sacramento, a volunteer nonprofit founded by Lisa Schmidt and I in 2012. Since then we have leased the garden from the city.

We market and manage events at the rose garden, including weddings, to raise funds that enable our nonprofit to care for the entire garden at no cost to the city. We recruit and manage hundreds of volunteers who care for the roses.

Here’s the background on the water vault and the reason most neighbors I’ve spoken to support the project.

The need for the vault arises from Sacramento’s outdated combined sewer system, which dumps storm runoff and wastewater into one pipeline for treatment at the regional sanitation facility in Elk Grove. During severe storms, the system can become overwhelmed, which leads to sewer outflows in lower-lying neighborhoods such as East Sacramento.

 

“Untreated sewage comes onto the streets, literally floating down the streets. It’s a real health hazard,” City Councilmember Jeff Harris says. “Many people in the area have basements that flood and that are often contaminated with sewer effluvia.”

If constructed, the McKinley Water Vault would store up to 6 million gallons of water in an underground tank until a storm passes. Then the water gets pumped out for treatment.

For all but a handful of days every decade, the vault would remain empty. The project will cost roughly $30 million. Construction is expected to last between 18 and 24 months.

The City Council approved certifying the McKinley Water Vault Environmental Impact Report last Oct. 9.

In the weeks before the council action, a small but intense opposition emerged, expressing its opinion on red and yellow banners erected on two H Street homes. The banners read, “Halt the 3.2-acre sewage tank.”

Neighbors who opposed the project spoke at City Council meetings and stated objections to the length and intensity of construction and related traffic. They asked the council to reconsider drastically more expensive and lengthy alternatives.

Harris, who represents the neighborhood, says opponents mischaracterized the purpose of the underground concrete cistern.

“They’ve called it a toxic waste dump and a sewage tank,” Harris says. “It’s basically meant to be a cache for storm water.”

Harris points to the $1.3 million upgrades McKinley Park will receive once construction is completed—amenities that could include new bathrooms, a new irrigation system and a heated pool. “Additionally, we’d be planting 60 new trees in the park,” he says.

The city has significant experience with water-storage vaults. They are a major component of our flood protection. Three facilities have been built in neighborhoods around East Sacramento over the past 19 years.

The vaults have proved safe and effective. There have been no problems or complaints with any of the storage facilities.

Opponents of the McKinley Water Vault argue the city should separate its two sewer systems, which Harris notes would cost upward of $1 billion and take more than 20 years to complete.

A website, savemckinleypark.com, primarily focuses on park closures, traffic congestion and potential noise from construction. The website doesn’t identify who is leading or funding the opposition campaign. Only Will Green is publically identified by name in communications from the group.

A lawsuit to stop the McKinley Water Vault was filed one month after the City Council approved the environmental report. (City taxpayers are on the hook to pay the costs of defending the lawsuit.) In February, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge rejected an attempt to stop the vault’s construction.

In a nine-page ruling, Judge Richard Sueyoshi denied the lawsuit filed by an anonymous group calling itself Citizens For A Safe And Sewage-Free McKinley. The group wanted to block the city from building the vault. There is little doubt the lawsuit was connected to people who manage the “save McKinley” website.

The group claimed the water vault would harm trees in McKinley Park and cause sewage and contaminated storm water to flow into the park and damage the neighborhood’s historical resources and air quality.

In his ruling, Judge Sueyoshi wrote, “The Court agrees with (the city) that (the citizens group) has failed to cite the evidence that is not in support of its position.” He added that while the group may disagree with the EIR’s conclusions, “This does not constitute a sufficient basis to set aside the city’s approval of the EIR.”

After losing in court, the anonymous group put up five more huge banners—making a total of seven. The banners and signs are visible and unsightly to people enjoying the park and have created significant concerns among potential renters of the rose garden and volunteers who train and work there.

The rose garden’s major source of revenue is events, augmented by private donations. Even regular donors now question the “sewer tank” fear mongering expressed by the banners.

Our rose garden operation will be potentially impacted by the project. But we understand the need and welcome the significant improvements to park infrastructure and landscaping. We see the work as another much-needed revitalization project for the historic rose garden—a continuation of what we started in 2012.

The group that purports to want to preserve the historic park is now contributing to its possible demise. They are making our volunteer jobs much more difficult. They are limiting our sources of income.

Under the city’s sign ordinance, the banners are illegal. We filed a complaint with the city in April. The code enforcement department confirmed the banners are illegal, and we hope the city will move swiftly to get them removed.

But the city’s sign ordinance is vague. Smaller signs are permitted for up to six months in a calendar year. Who verifies installation dates?

At the end of June, even the smaller lawn signs must be removed. Of course, the message on the signs is unregulated.  Imagine what hateful, spiteful neighbors could accomplish, forcing you and your family and city officials to absorb various opinions for six months.

No one wants to hinder our First Amendment freedom of speech. But the potential for public annoyance and acrimony is real.

As for the McKinley Rose Garden, it’s easy for groups who oppose civic projects to tear down the work of volunteers at our nonprofit. It takes endless hours and dedication to serve the city by privately creating a world-class public amenity.

None of the folks behind the banners and lawsuit have lifted a finger or donated a dime to help with the McKinley Rose Garden. The community should be outraged at the destructive behavior of a secretive, anonymous group supposedly concerned with preservation.

Note: Just before we went to print the large banners were removed as ordered by the city. But numerous new banners—of the smaller size allowed by city code—were installed on both H Street and 33rd Street.

Cecily Hastings can be reached at publisher@insidepublications.com. Previous columns can be found and shared at the all-new insidesacramento.com.

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