Two rivers converge in Sacramento. By at least one important measure, however, they couldn't be more different.
The American River provides wide-open public paths on both levees that frame it, all the way to Folsom Lake. A cyclist or an ambitious hiker can freely travel more than 30 miles along the river's edge.
The Sacramento River, however, brings a walker or cyclist up short. From the confluence with the American River, the public path along the Sacramento runs about five miles, to 25th Avenue, where it abruptly ends in a locked gate spanning the levee. It is the first of 12 such impediments that chop up public access to the Sacramento River shore in the Pocket and Little Pocket neighborhoods.
The city of Sacramento is reviving a long-stalled plan to bring down the fences. The goal is an unbroken public path running another 10 miles to Freeport. The idea is stirring old emotions that kept the plan in the shadows for 15 years.
Property owners along gated portions of the levee, who have enjoyed exclusive access to the river for decades, fear a tide of humanity bringing theft, vandalism and a loss of privacy and land value.
"I have a little piece of heaven on earth and I'll be damned if I'm going to give it up," said Jerry Balshor, a riverfront homeowner in the Little Pocket neighborhood, whose family has owned the property for 60 years. "This is going to open up a whole can of worms. It's a dirty issue for a lot of us."
Others argue it is high time Sacramento took full advantage of its primary natural amenity: its river frontage.
"It would be nice to hop on my bike at the south end of the Pocket and go all the way to Folsom if I wanted to. But you can't do that now," said Jack Lawson, a Pocket homeowner for 13 years. "I'm very close to the levee and that's one reason I bought a house there, because I saw the recreation opportunity. I think it should be open."
The fences stand thanks to the shifting sands of law and urban planning.
Long-standing state law assures public access to levees and coastlines below the "mean high water mark." Even behind private fences, the public is allowed to access the water's edge, whether along the Sacramento River or the Pacific Ocean.
But above the high water mark, access depends upon whether the property owner ever gave up a public access easement.
Today's wide-open levees on the American River exist because a vision for a public parkway was hatched by the city nearly a century ago, in 1915. Local government officials began acquiring land for the parkway in the 1960s, before much suburban development had occurred.
The Sacramento River was not the subject of such foresight.
When the Little Pocket and the north half of the Pocket were subdivided in the 1960s, neither city leaders nor state law required property owners to give up ownership of the levee or an easement on top. As a result, some of these property owners still hold a legal right to fence off their small piece of the levee.
The south half of the Pocket was subdivided later, after adoption of the Subdivision Map Act in 1974, said James Houpt, an attorney who has researched the issue and is also a member of the Sacramento River Parkway Coalition, which includes a number of recreation groups. The act required the subdivider to give up a public-access easement to the levees, Houpt said. As a result, there are no fences blocking the levee in the southern half of the Pocket.
Fences frustrate some
From one perspective, the math behind the access debate is simple. There are 118 private parcels along the Sacramento River levee in the Pocket and Little Pocket neighborhoods, according to city officials. A subset of those maintain fences that exclude the public.
On the other hand, there are about 153,000 residential parcels in the city of Sacramento that pay taxes in some form to maintain the levee for flood protection.
Put another way, for every riverfront homeowner in the Pocket and Little Pocket, there are 1,300 other homeowners who have a stake in management of the levee.
"In essence, the riverfront homeowners have claimed a sense of privacy and security to which they are not entitled," said Houpt.
Many people who want to enjoy the Sacramento River levees are frustrated by the fences. Mia Davis, 30, was walking the levee last week with her mother and sister when she ran into the forbidding steel gate that blocks people from walking through the Little Pocket from the south.
The family moved from Wisconsin only two weeks ago, and wants to get to know Sacramento's rivers.
"I was hoping to get to see the river, but I guess not," said Davis, who was walking her dog, Cleo. "I came out here today ready for a long walk. It's sad."
For Jared Funakoshi, 19, the fences have been a lifelong fixture. He has lived in the Pocket since he was a toddler.
"I used to run with my dad and say, 'How come all these fences are here,' " said Funakoshi, who was jogging on an open section of the levee near Garcia Bend Park with his dog, Bella. "It would be cool to go downtown just going on the levee. I would use it a lot."
Riverfront homeowners, on the other hand, say they've done nothing wrong and shouldn't be forced to give up their privacy. Some say vandalism and trespassing are already a problem.
"If it goes through, I don't care what amount of money I was paid, I would not want to live here," said Rosie Walker, treasurer of the Sacramento Riverfront Association, which represents homeowners along the levee. "Everyone filed permits and did everything according to the law at the time, and they can't just come in and rewrite the law now."
Access plan OK'd in 1997
The City Council approved the Sacramento River Parkway Plan in 1997. The plan made it formal city policy to open the levees to public access, using eminent domain to obtain easements, if necessary. But the plan went nowhere, because the council had little desire to battle property owners.
In recent years, however, recreation groups have pressed the council on the issue. And there appears to be a council majority willing to take it on, including Councilman Darrell Fong, who represents the Pocket.
"I've talked to some people about it who live on the levee, and I've told them I'm sorry," said Fong. "To me, we're blessed by having these two rivers here. This is for public good. This is for the good of the community, for the region."
On Nov. 13, the City Council will consider a staff proposal to begin carrying out the 1997 plan, which also calls for creating a trail along the portion of the American River that fronts Natomas. The Parks and Recreation Commission will discuss the issue at 7 p.m. today in the City Council chambers, 915 I St.
The 1997 plan preserved the city's authority to use eminent domain. J.P. Tindell, parks planning and development manager for the city, said the goal is to work with willing property owners first, although the city is not ruling out eminent domain to complete the path.
"What we're doing right now is focusing on what do we have to do next to really make this a reality," Tindell said.
One thing is certain: Completing a trail on the levee will take years as the city begins negotiating with property owners and seeks grant funding for the project.
No one involved in the effort was willing to venture a guess on how much it might cost. The city has $100,000 available to begin planning. It will be spent researching property titles and legal issues to determine exactly where easements are needed, Tindell said. No money is yet available to actually buy those easements.