City council narrowly votes to reconsider plan to build a trail connecting Mooney Grove and Cutler Park on a complete north-south bike route
VISALIA – Cyclists can go for a bike ride from the Cutler Park to Mooney Grove Park along designated bike routes. Well, all except the last 1.25 miles from Santa Fe Street to Mooney Grove. That’s where the longest continuous bike route in Visalia, the Santa Fe Trail, ends. The remaining 6,500 feet is a combination of narrow country roads winding around Cameron Creek where cyclists must share the road with delivery trucks, Uber/Lyft drivers and commuters racing on the shortcut around a busy Mooney Boulevard.
The Visalia City Council discussed a plan at its Oct. 19 meeting to create the Cameron Creek Trail connecting the Santa Fe Trail to the park, but voted 3-2 to defer the plan until the area was ready to be developed. One of the two dissenting votes was cast by councilmember Greg Collins, who placed the item on the Dec. 21 consent calendar for the council to reconsider at a future meeting. He said the project would allow the city to spike the ball in the culmination of a 35-year drive.
“We are now on the five yard line and wishing to push the ball into the endzone and complete the vision,” Collins said.
But it wasn’t Collins who pulled the item off of the consent calendar for discussion, instead it was Councilmember Brian Poochigian who said he would be voting against the item. Poochigian said the city had already discussed purchasing property for the trail from the landowners behind Mooney Grove and they said they would not sell their land to the city.
“So we’d have to use eminent domain to build this,” Poochigian said, “and that is something I don’t think the city should be involved in.”
Poochigian was referring to the work session of the Oct. 19 meeting, when four of the six property owners along the proposed trail path spoke against the project. The property owners said the area east of Mooney Grove is already rife with homeless, drug addicts and prostitution. They also said Avenue 272 is not an ideal place for cyclists and runners because it has become a speedy shortcut for everything from rideshare drivers to furniture delivery trucks and the trail is likely to become a racetrack for four-wheel drive vehicles and dirt bikes. Only one property owner was in favor of selling a portion of their land to facilitate a trail but only accounts for 1,500 feet of the 6,500 feet needed. Another did not respond to staff requests.
Mayor Steve Nelsen said he was “emphatic” he would not support funding for this study or for any other trail project until the city could figure out its homeless situation.
“The city’s trails have become a campground for the city’s homeless and that’s impacted the residents in that area,” Nelsen said. The mayor represents District 5 encompassing the St. John’s Parkway and Santa Fe trails in northeast Visalia and is executive director of Downtown Visalians where businesses complain about the homeless living along waterways, railroads and trails. He also added most of the trail was outside of the city limits.
“I think if the County [of Tulare] wants to finish it, they can finish it,” Nelsen said. “I don’t think we need to take that burden on.”
While only property owners spoke against the project on Oct. 19, cyclists spoke in favor of the trail at the Dec. 21 meeting.
Mark Wall sits on the board of the Southern Sierra Cyclists group, as well as the city’s Environmental Committee and Tulare County’s Active Transportation Advisory Committee, bought several members of the bike club to the meeting. He said connecting the city’s north-south trail will be an important attraction for bike routes within the US Bicycle Route System, an organization promoting cycling tourism, because the flat terrain makes it accessible to all levels of riders. Wall said the northern end of the city along the St. John’s River would link to a Valley route coming down the backroads from Reedley through Yettem. Mooney Grove would be the tourism link to the route, which is being developed to explore the culture of the Valley’s agricultural heritage.
“The big advantage of Mooney Grove is that it has the Tulare County Museum, including the agriculture and farm labor museum,” Wall said. “This would be a really great stock on this route.”
Wall said by funding a study to connect the Santa Fe Trail to the museum and the state’s oldest county parks, the trail could be included in the planning coordination and development of the tourism route being proposed in the Valley.
“I think doing it right now has some advantages for Visalia,” Wall said. “There’s not a lot of campgrounds along this route, so many people would be staying in hotels.”
Another member of the cycling club, Mark Thompson, said for the last three years he has hosted a ride for about 30 cyclists that loops around the southern part of town through Mooney Boulevard and then up the Santa Fe Trail. And while most serious riders are prepared to ride along side traffic on narrow country roads, he said it is not a place he would take his wife or grandchildren on a casual bike ride.
“It’s a heavily traveled road and I have to say I don’t feel like it’s one of the safer roads for cyclists,” Thompson said. “I would ask you please consider whatever path you can find create a safe path for cyclists to continue riding.”
The $4.6 million trail is unlikely to cost the city any money as most of the project will be funded through Measure R, the half cent transportation tax approved by voters in 2006. The money is overseen by the Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG), which has already approved funding for the feasibility study of the trail. Ted Smalley, executive director of TCAG, said it was critical for the city and county to connect trails when presented with the opportunity.
“As we encourage people to bike, we have to provide safe facilities for them,” Smalley said. “There is a major destination at Mooney Grove Park for all the residents of Visalia. All of us take our kids there, all of us have fun with our families there and we need to make it safe.”
Part of the reason bike/walk trails are part of the Measure R is to meet carbon reduction standards set by the state. As a self-proclaimed environmentalist, Kathy Falconer praised the city for its Climate Action Plan which indicates a large number of walkways, parkways and bikeways throughout the city which is desperately needed as the city continues to grow its fulfillment centers and shipping centers in the industrial park across town from Mooney Grove. She said greenhouse gases produced by commuter and commercial vehicles remains a major issue for every city in the San Joaquin Valley, but Visalia had an opportunity to be the gem of the Valley in reducing the pollution in one of the worst areas for air quality in the country.
“We need to make sure that we are protecting those people which live in the city of Visalia by reducing the carbon emissions that we are producing by driving cars,” she said. “It would be great for them to bike and walk.”
Poochigian suggested waiting for the area to be developed and then designing the Cameron Creek Trail as part of that future development, an alternative to acquiring the land identified in the staff report for the trail at the Oc. 19 meeting. The report noted most of the area is slated for single family residential use in tier 3 and the city is already considering moving into tier 2, meaning development would take place in the next 20-25 years.
Collins made the motion to reconsider the item and it was seconded by Cox, who said at the Oct. 19 meeting he was in favor of an alignment that just widened the existing roadway rather than bisecting existing parcels despite referring to the St. John’s Trail as the “homeless highway”. The motion passed 3-2, with Poochigian and Nelsen voting no.
“I’m not saying we don’t need to look at this,” Nelsen said. “What I’m saying is we need to maybe postpone it and bring it back when we have a low barrier shelter. But create another [homeless] campground, I can’t do that.”