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Editorial: Time is ripe for Pocket greenway

Politically, it has been too heavy a lift to extend a greenway through Sacramento's Pocket neighborhood.

But with new leadership at City Hall, the time is ripe to push for fuller public access along the Sacramento River.

It will not be easy and it could take years, but the sooner the city gets started, the better. The many benefits are well worth the effort: improved air quality if more people commute by bicycle, better health through increased recreational opportunities, and an enhanced feature that sets Sacramento apart.

The big hurdle, as usual, is money. The city does not have a dedicated revenue source for regional recreational areas. Its general fund is tapped out. Grants are competitive and often come with strings attached. Progress will require a creative combination of public and private money.

Still, the challenge is not quite as daunting as some might think. Of the 179 parcels along the river in the Little Pocket and the Pocket, the city owns 45 and the state controls another five. That leaves 129 where the city would have to haggle with private property owners.

Preferably, the city could acquire recreation easements to secure public access. It would be far more expensive to have to buy the houses and land outright.

The city would also face additional costs if it is taken to court – as it almost certainly will be – because of massive resistance from many homeowners in the Pocket and Little Pocket, who have title to the land under the levee.

They worry about their privacy – they don't want outsiders to be able to peer from the top of the levee 20 and 30 feet high into their yards and homes, many of them boasting panoramic views of the river. They also raise concerns about crime, vandalism and trash.

Jeff Hunt, an attorney who lives in the Little Pocket and is a member of the Sacramento Riverfront Association, says homeowners would fight the city "at all costs."

With the cash-poor city facing many other needs, he says, it makes no sense to spend several million dollars on easements just to benefit what he describes as a small group of bicyclists. He says homeowners would go to court to force the city to buy properties outright, which would cost millions more.

"It's going to cost them dearly," he vows.

Jerry Balshor, a neighbor of Hunt's in the Little Pocket enclave of 17 homes along the river, says he has no interest in any city offer. "You can't put a price on privacy," he says.

The objections of residents ought to be taken seriously, and they should be fairly compensated. But they should not have the final word.

The Friends of the Sacramento River Greenway, a volunteer group that has advocated for public access since the early 1990s, pushed to open several short stretches along the Sacramento River levees.

To take the next step, it's up to City Hall, says a group leader, Tom Higgins.

"Leadership is what we're looking for," he says.

They may finally find it.

District 4 council member Rob Fong, whose district includes the Little Pocket, says he would take the opposition head-on and make the case that the greenway is for the greater good. He says he's even willing to use the city's condemnation powers to obtain easements if necessary.

When he was first elected in 2004, Fong says, he was counseled by his predecessor Jimmie Yee not to take on the issue because it was politically toxic. While outgoing Councilman Robbie Waters was entrenched in District 7 and adamantly opposed to the idea, there was no sense pursuing it, Fong says.

But Tuesday, Darrell Fong (no relation) takes the oath of office replacing Waters – and he says that the greenway is on his priority list and that he believes there could be some movement on the issue.

"A lot of people want access to the river," he says. "I'm one of them."

While acknowledging the inevitable controversy, he says residents' concerns have to be balanced against the public's best interest. Council members must also weigh the greenway against competing park priorities and the city's other needs.

If the city does act, a likely private partner is the nonprofit Sacramento Valley Conservancy, which envisions an uninterrupted bike path and greenway along the Sacramento River from Freeport to Sutter County as part of a 50-mile loop that also includes the American River Parkway and Laguna Creek Parkway. A bicyclist, or particularly intrepid hiker, could circle the entire county – from Folsom through the heart of Sacramento past Elk Grove to Rancho Cordova.

The conservancy's executive director, Aimee Rutledge, says it would be happy to work with "public and private partners and willing sellers."

It's time to get started.