Highway 198 goes ‘Scenic'

By C.J. Barbre

“The lake, river and landscape show a wide diversity

with the seasons and the amount of water present.

Plant life varies as the elevation increases or the slope aspect changes. The stark white, twisted trunks of the California sycamore grow on the riverbanks contrasting with shimmering cottonwoods. Further up the bank,

along the highway can be seen ancient, towering Valley oaks, grand sentinels marking an earlier era. The steeper slopes at higher elevations are covered by evergreen drought-tolerant chaparral shrubs such as the buckeye,

redbud, lupine, deerbrush and manzanita.”

- One paragraph of a 3,600 word essay describing the scenic beauty of Highway 198 from Lake Kaweah, for 16 miles, to the Sequoia National Park boundary.

Are we proud of where we live or not? One would think not. Who knew Tulare County has not one single Scenic Highway designation? Who knew portions of highways 198 and 190 have been determined eligible for scenic designation by the state of California since 1963!

Did you know that in 1975 the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, by Resolution No. 75-2590, adopted the Scenic Highways Element of the Tulare County General Plan, setting up &#8220the necessary process” for such designations. Again, in 1981, the Foothill Growth Management Plan agreed that providing local protection of scenic highways and roads within the foothills would protect them against &#8220obtrusive development improvements.”

Who knew it would take 43 years for a community to actually bring back the necessary documentation to get its main thoroughfare designated scenic and even then the board of supervisors would offer some resistance!

At the April 25 Tulare County Board of Supervisors meeting the Three Rivers Village Foundation with the support of Caltrans, requested 16 miles of Highway 198, extending eastward from Road 248 through Three Rivers to the Sequoia National Park boundary as a California Scenic Highway.

After seeing a beautiful presentation complete with incredibly scenic photos, the information that such a designation would promote local tourism and enhance regional identity, and that once designated, the foundation would be eligible for grant funding for maintenance, the supervisors basically wanted to know what was the catch.

Chairman and District 4 Supervisor Steve Worthley said, &#8220This says we're making a commitment of the county. What constraints are we putting on the county?

&#8220That's hard to answer at this early stage,” said George Finney, Assistant RMA Director of Long Range Planning. But he said the worst thing that could happen was, if at some future date the county changed its mind, they could take the signs down.

&#8220Are we being bound today?” Worthley asked.

Finney explained that said designation was already in the General Plan, that they would just be implementing that.

District 3 Supervisor Phil Cox wanted to know why they had not included Kaweah Oaks Preserve. &#8220Why is it limited to such a short section? he asked.

&#8220Because Three Rivers spearheaded it,” said Tom Sparks, spokesperson for the Three Rivers Village Foundation. &#8220We would want grassroots groups from other areas.”

&#8220What is the possibility of adding to it?” Cox asked. &#8220What about existing signs? Will they be required to be moved? Changed? And overhead lines?”

Connie Jones with Caltrans said signs would be grandfathered in. She said it wouldn't be difficult to add on more of the highway if there was more interest. &#8220District 1 has no scenic highways. Most people fear it will take years. It won't. I had asked to include the community of Lemon Cove, but Lemon Cove had no interest.”

&#8220Lemon Cove is still thinking about it,” Sparks said. He said he mentioned it to some business proprietors, but they need an organization to be interested. &#8220We just felt what Three Rivers picked out was big enough for Three Rivers to work on. Now it's up to the county to get core protection in place.”

District 5 Supervisor Jim Maples wanted to know if there were public meetings and what opposition they got from the community.

Sparks said the primary concern was ‘What does this mean for my place if I'm on the highway?' He said there was also concern that a scenic designation &#8220puts you in the grip of some form of government.” He said old-timers were most resistant because of former bad experiences, but they also got letters of support.

&#8220What does Three Rivers hope to gain by doing this beyond scenic?” Maples asked. &#8220I'm struggling with this on Highway 190 as well.”

Sparks said they would be eligible for grants and would, with federal funding, be able to put power lines underground.

Finally, District 1 Supervisor Allen Ishida laid it all out. Three Rivers is in his district. &#8220When it initially started, it was because we lost TEA funding for a visitor center, so Maze put a bill into the Assembly to fast track Three Rivers as a Scenic Highway. So it was pursued and we got to the right people at Caltrans and found out that it was not that restrictive. Finally we got educated that everything is a matter of perception and Caltrans' perception was not as limiting as our perception.

&#8220We said we would not pursue it if the majority didn't want it, but there was not that much opposition. But we're still not committed to going forward. If it is detrimental to the community, we can opt out in a couple of years.

&#8220Why not more people and a longer stretch of highway? It's a tremendous amount of work for just this stretch. For us to drag Lemon Cove and Exeter and Farmersville and Visalia into this deal would take too much time. Three Rivers is doing the ground-breaking. We're making it a lot easier for others. This gives Highway 190 a template. We found that being a scenic highway is not that onerous.”

After all of that, District 2 Supervisor Connie Conway said, &#8220Sometimes little flags go up. Who's in charge? Who makes the regulations? Those of us who have been through other regulations - it makes us nervous.”

&#8220We will put it all together and become a Scenic Highway. Then its up to the county to regulate,” Jones, the Caltrans representative, said. &#8220If the county doesn't do the job, it can lose the designation. Caltrans doesn't regulate.”

&#8220It's a really good starting point,” Conway conceded. &#8220Piece by piece.”

The supervisors voted unanimously in favor of Three Rivers and Caltrans going ahead with the remaining steps to get the Scenic Highway designation.

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