Sacramento River Levee Access Concerns
“The levee is not any homeowner’s backyard. When the State acquired easements many years ago to improve the levees, the homeowners’ predecessors surrendered their right to control what they do with the levees. From 10 feet off the landside levee toe to the river’s edge, a homeowner can do almost nothing with the levee unless the state permits it. A homeowner can’t plant a bush without an encroachment permit. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides guidance on appropriate vegetation and how it’s maintained.”
-Jim Houpt, Friends of the Sacramento River Parkway
Homeowners from the Pocket and Greenhaven neighborhoods along with state, local, and city representatives met Thursday, October 22, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Kennedy High School Auditorium to clarify Sacramento River levee use. Approximately 150 people attended the meeting.
City Councilman Rick Jennings, II, of District 7, called and moderated the meeting.
District 7 represents the Pocket and Greenhaven neighborhoods in South Sacramento.
The Pocket Community Plan Area boundary “encompasses 7.9 square miles or 5,056 acres entirely within Sacramento City Limits. The community is bounded on the north by 35th Avenue and the Sacramento River on the south and west by the Sacramento River, and on the east by Freeport Boulevard.”
This meeting was not the first one on the heated topic of levee use. Homeowners for many years have been up-in–arms about levee fences, about confusing signage along the levee, and about people walking the levees day and night. They complain about levee walkers, bikers, and transients leaving trash along the levees and in areas that homeowners claim belong to them.
The city River Parkway Plan envisions the Sacramento River Parkway similar to the American River one. It would have paved walks for bikers and walkers all the way starting within city limits including South Natomas down to south of the Freeport reservoir to the Freeport Bridge. The Parkway would be 17 miles long and cover 820 acres.
Several confrontations have occurred along the levees. Some homeowners have illegally constructed their own fences and put up signs that declare “Private Property: No Trespassing.” Police are continually responding to crime and nuisance complaints from homeowners. One homeowner who confronted someone on the levee was pushed down the embankment.
Jennings appealed to the homeowners not to confront those who they think are trespassing. He said with the world as it is today, you never know who you might encounter and what they might do. He also said the safety and maintenance of the levees must be our collective priority and responsibility. The public has the absolute right to access the levees.
Since 1975, the City has worked toward completing the River Parkway. Jennings says that the Sacramento River Parkway Master Plan (1975) includes 13 public access policies and two apply to the levee access discussion: Policy 5 states public access is limited to daylight hours and the hours shall be posted at all access points. Policy 8 states that access points and associated improvements shall be designed to minimize impact on adjacent land use.
To move forward in the undeveloped part of the parkway trail, the California Valley Flood Protection Board will need to revoke the permits for the cross-levee fences, and the city will need to buy the remaining easements.
In 2012, CVFPB representative Alison Tang wrote, “The Central Valley Flood Protection Board would have required levee encroachment permits and none were ever issued.
Now that the staff is aware of these unpermitted encroachments in our easement, we will initiate enforcement action against landowners that allowed construction of unpermitted fences.”
To develop the remaining portion of the Parkway Trail requires the City to purchase easements from 71 property owners along the river in the Pocket/Greenhaven area. One homeowner has already sold an easement while another is in escrow with the City.
The $50,000 – $80,000 cost for each easement to the City is determined by a property appraiser. The total purchase cost for homeowner easements is estimated between $4 & 5 million dollars. Unfortunately, the Pocket/Greenhaven and the Little Pocket community (District 4) developers did not obtain easements as a condition of development.
One homeowner echoing a number of sentiments at the meeting shouted, “I don’t want to live here anymore. Why don’t you buy the whole property?”
Jennings says that different sources will be asked to contribute funds for easement purchase. For example, the California Lands Commission has funds to help purchase more access easement, but the property owner must be willing to sell.
Four panel members at the October 22nd meeting answered questions about public versus private rights along the levees with an effort to untangle the previous confusion and misinformation among property owners and those who use the Sacramento River Parkway.Panelist Bill Edgar, President of the Central Valley Flood Protection Board said the Board is responsible for regulating encroachments that may affect the federal flood control system built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is maintained by local agencies.
At the meeting Edgar was a clear voice about levee access. He emphasized two issues of CVFPB responsibility: 1) Public security by protecting levees from devastating flooding, and 2) Continued issuance of permit easements along the river. The Board is responsible for other project permits for such as bridges, fish release sites, access ramps, and coffer dams.
A minimum of 10-foot clearance between private property owners and the toe of the levee is required. Obstructions such homeowner planted trees, mowed lawns, stairs leading up the levees, bar-b-que areas with picnic tables are illegal. Some boat docks have legal easements and some do not. Edgar drew a laugh from the audience by saying that although not in this area, one homeowner had dug a hole in a levee and built himself a wine cellar.
Another panel member, Sacramento Police Captain Dave Peletta, discussed the security and protection of the public. Peletta is Captain of the South Command and said, “These levee issues have been on-going for more than 25 years, and our concern is public safety and protection.” Police have been caught between property owner rights and the public access to levees near private property.
Peletta says that there are only nine officers who patrol the South Command and priority is always the emergency 911 call which he says police respond to within three minutes. Police response works on the level of concern about an incident. He says police track every complaint about trespassing on private property as well as those calls about loiterers and transients on the levee, but emergencies have to take priority. There is no 24-hour patrol of the levees.
He says, “We won’t tolerate transients setting up camp on the levees.”
Panelist Deputy City Attorney Sheryl Patterson answered legal questions from the audience. She said to visualize the levee areas think of them as cake layers.
The CVFPB prescribed 10 feet minimum space from the property owners’ property to the toe of the levee, the land side of the levee, the crown of the levee, and the water side of the levee make up these layers.
Someone in the audience asked about eminent domain, but Patterson and Jennings said they were not ready to talk about that issue.
The fourth panelist Principal Planner Mary de Beauvieres of the City Parks & Recreation Planning & Development discussed park services. She said they do not have personnel to patrol the levees at night. Her department is responsible for land acquisition and real estate transactions, parks and trails along the rivers.
It may be some years before levee issues are settled. Although public agency responsiblities may seem contradictory and overlapping, the law will ultimately prevail. Meanwhile residents will have to be patient and civil to their neighbors.Councilman Jennings says, “This extension of the Parkway Trail is a good beginning, but I will continue to work toward the completion of the Sacramento River Parkway Trail throughout our community. In order to do this, we will need the cooperation of the CVFPB in regard to cross levees fences and continued funding for the purchase of the recreational access easements.”
Public Policy Advisor Casanya Ursery of Jennings’ office says questions and answers from the meeting will be posted on the Councilman’s website (firstname.lastname@example.org) in the coming weeks.