The view from Don Murphy’s expansive backyard is breathtaking. The Sacramento River rolls gently past as birds float in the mid-winter fog. It is nearly silent, except for the infrequent car driving along a delta road across the river. It’s easy to forget you’re standing in the middle of a major city.
Now a fight is heating up over who should have access to that serenity. Should it be Murphy and his neighbors? Or does everyone have that right?
Murphy is one of a handful of residents in Sacramento’s Pocket and Greenhaven neighborhoods whose properties border the Sacramento River. For more than 40 years, a plan has been on the books to build a paved public trail that would eventually connect the Pocket with downtown. The trail would run on top of the levee directly behind Murphy’s home – and many others tucked up against the Sacramento River.
Now, after years of little to no action, City Hall is getting more serious about wresting a strip of riverfront land from private owners so the trail can become reality.
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Late last year, appraisers arrived at Murphy’s home to assess how much his 534 feet of river frontage is worth. The city will eventually offer to buy the easement rights to the levee top from Murphy, along with the easements controlled by eight other homeowners between Garcia Bend Park and Arabella Way. Once those properties are under the city’s control, work will begin on extending the Sacramento River levee trail another 2 miles to fill a gap between Arabella Way and Garcia Bend Park.
It seems unlikely the city will have nine willing sellers. Instead, an eminent domain lawsuit seems inevitable. In that case, a court would decide whether the city has the right to buy the properties and how much it should pay.
Murphy bought his home in 1999 with the understanding that it came with riverfront access. He pays property taxes based on acreage that runs to the river, and the deed to his property states that public access to the levee is limited to maintenance work by flood control agencies. Nothing in the deed states that the levee can be used for recreational use by the public, Murphy said.
What’s more, a Sacramento City Attorney opinion from 2015 stated that some parts of the levee top are “private property” controlled by the homeowners who maintain easement rights. Fences block public access to long stretches of the levee, although Murphy does not have a fence on his portion.
“I’ve never restricted access,” Murphy said last week, standing on the levee above his dock and boat house. “I could stop people, but I don’t mind my neighbors walking up here and enjoying the river.”
Councilman Rick Jennings, who represents the Pocket and Greenhaven, wants many more people to enjoy the river. He convinced the City Council to dedicate $2.3 million in this year’s budget to purchase property rights on top of the levee and begin design work on the bike trail.
“I believe that trail should be a public right, I believe that trail belongs to everyone,” Jennings said. “There’s a serenity there and I want everybody to have the ability to see that.”
Murphy worries the serenity will be shattered if the levee is opened up to the public. He called the police recently on a man who broke onto his dock. In a separate incident, Murphy called the police after a woman was found under the ramp to his dock yelling.
Deputy Chief Dave Peletta of the Sacramento Police Department said he believes more access to the river could make it safer. He said a police department analysis last year showed there were more incidents reported inside portions of the levee that were blocked off than in the sections where the public has access.
“I’ve always believed that the more eyes out there the better,” Peletta said. He added that the department already conducts regular patrols of the area with beat cops, helicopters and police boats.
Jennings’ office said homeowners like Murphy who purchased their homes since a Sacramento River parkway plan was adopted by the City Council in 1975 should have expected the city would one day try to acquire their levee easements.
“For whatever reason – a lack of focus, a lack of foresight – this (the trail) did not happen,” Jennings said. “That parkway plan was so progressive and now it needs to be implemented.”
That’s not acceptable to Billyann Groza, whose family has owned a riverfront home not far from Murphy’s since 1969.
Groza’s father built the home and, with the state’s permission, erected a chain link fence across the top of the levee, she said. The fence has been cut a half dozen times in recent years, and Groza’s boat has been broken into. Groza isn’t buying the theory that a public trail will create a safer environment.
“Are all those people going to be there at night? I don’t think so,” she said. “And that’s when a lot of this vandalism happens. I’m not going to take whatever they offer me (to purchase the easement).”
Murphy has not been offered a purchase price for his easement yet. It will likely be worth tens of thousands of dollars. It won’t matter, he said, because he wants his property to remain like it is for his grandchildren to enjoy.
“I don’t know if we have a chance at winning whatever battle with the city is in front of us,” Murphy said. “But maybe it can be slowed down.”