Vice Mayor Phil Cox says he intends to keep his promise to build Cameron Creek Trail approved in original Measure R sales tax plan
VISALIA – The Cameron Creek Trail isn’t just another bike path local runners and cyclists want, it is something they were promised 15 years ago.
Visalia Vice Mayor Phil Cox sat on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors in 2006 when he, along with other county and city leaders, were able to pass a countywide half cent sales tax measure to fund transportation projects in Tulare County. Cox co-authored the argument in favor of Measure R which required a two-thirds majority to pass. Measure R passed with 67.23% of the vote and would have failed if not for the inclusion of clean air projects such as bike paths, public transportation and environmental mitigation.
“We made promises to citizens of Visalia and Tulare County if they would support our crazy Measure R plan, with the potential of $2 billion in projects, we would provide amenities they wanted,” Cox said. “They wanted this amenity and I don’t want to go back on my word.”
Cox’s comments came at the Jan. 19 meeting when the council reconsidered a proposal to build the Cameron Creek Trail connecting the Santa Fe Trail to Mooney Grove Park. Cox reminded the rest of the council those promises have resulted in $10 billion in projects within the first 10 years of Measure R and more than that in another five years. He also said this trail, which was included in the original expenditure plan approved in 2006, has enough funding for not only construction but also for ongoing maintenance.
“This will cost the city nothing to do, won’t displace anyone and we need to keep our word to the people,” Cox said.
Cox’s comments were confirmed by Steven Tootle, a history professor at COS who worked on Measure R and then later on the sales tax measure’s oversight committee. When Measure R passed, Tootle was the associate director of the Urban Tree Foundation and the environmental representative on the committee. He said Measure R would not have been approved without the broad coalition of runners, cyclists and environmental groups.
“It is incumbent upon this council to enact plans we promised would be enacted,” Tootle said.
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, and said the cycling community supported Measure R and this route as part of it. The original plan outlined 14% of expenditures would be for “transit/bicycle/environmental” projects and this project was the lynch pin to creating a north-south bike way that runs the entire length of the city and creates important links to east-west trails.
“This connectivity is essential and missing now,” Wall said.
Michael Young, owner of FYE Sports in Exeter, said he helps organize the Visalia Runners’ End of the Trail Marathon each year. The half marathon attracted 1,200 participants for the run, which ends at Mooney Grove Park, and 3,500 people and 45 vendors to its related health expo just last year. The event raised $10,000 for local cross country teams. In addition to fundraisers held by running and cycling groups, many non profits hold smaller runs to raise funds for their organizations, including Toys For Tots, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Human Trafficking Task Force and many more.
“Visalia Runners has agreed to adopt the trail and can conduct clean ups, and we can put that in writing,” Young said.
Bernard and Jake Tevelde, who farm land off Santa Fe and down Ave. 272 as well, said they were promised the issue of the bike path wouldn’t be brought up again until the area was ready to be developed. He said the bike path would attract more homeless people who create liabilities for farmers and ag workers because they leave needles and may be hiding in areas during spray treatments and when heavy equipment is running.
“We had a homeless man living there and weren’t able to spray for four days because we couldn’t get him out of there,” Jake said.
Bernard added, “What happens when live next to trail, there is no policing it. We try to police ourselves and it just doesn’t work very well. We need to figure out how to police it.”
Mayor Steve Nelsen, whose family has been in agriculture for 30 years, said he was sympathetic to local farmers who are constantly having to adjust to urban encroachment despite being established long before development plans are made. He suggested delaying a vote on the project, even as short as six months, to look at options to open the area for development and include the trail as part of that future development.
“I don’t think we need to wait 10-15 to figure out development in Tier III but I would like to get that question answered,” the mayor said. “We need to take a prudent approach.”
Heather Mendonca, one of the owners of Sierra Bicycle Werks in Visalia, said it isn’t just serious cyclists who want the trail to go through. She said there are many casual cyclists just looking for a family outing and an increasing number of people trying to bike to work. She said Visalia can’t allow the homeless population to be a deterrent for adding amenities to Visalia.
“The homeless haven’t made us leave downtown Visalia,” Mendonca said of her business, which recently relocated from one side of Main Street to another. “We shouldn’t take that away from the people. I hope you consider there is a need.”
Maile Melkonian, chair of city’s Environmental Committee, said the city also made a promise in its Climate Action Plan to build 140 miles of bike trails by 2020, which is why her committee voted unanimously for council to approve this extension be approved as expeditiously as possible. “We are now in 2021 and the current trails total less than one third of that, so we are woefully behind on that goal. This is a significant step in the right direction.”
Councilman Brett Taylor said the trail is the kind of project he would normally support because it is one he could see families using for years to come. What he couldn’t support was the use of eminent domain to make the pathway happen.
“I don’t take eminent domain lightly,” he said. “If we do it, we should do it for the right reasons … but we have a lot bigger issues in Visalia right now.”
Councilmember Brian Poochigian has been making that point since the item first came up last fall. He said the city’s General Plan, a document updated in 2014 which directs growth through 2030, shows Avenue 272 going through where it currently ends, meaning any current trail realignment would have to be redone once the area is developed. He also pointed out the land is not currently within the city limits.
“This property is not even in the city right now,” he said. “We can develop as part of a later use.”
Councilmember Greg Collins, who brought the trail back for discussion on Dec. 21 after it was defeated in October, said it was disappointing to hear the council delay a quality of life project another 15 years, skipping an entire generation of children. Even more disappointing for Collins was the council’s reluctance to use eminent domain on a project that benefitted people of all ages on a project that has money for construction as well as maintenance with little or no cost to the city.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve done eminent domain,” Collins said, citing the city’s recent move to take portions of Riggin Avenue to improve roadways connecting the Industrial Park to Highway 99. “That is not something the city should shy away from. If we did, nothing would ever get built.”
Local developer Matt Ainley said if the project is a priority the city should consider moving up the timeline for development of the area to coincide with development of the trail to avoid building something that will have to be redesigned and rebuilt later to match the character of the future development.
“This is an unfortunate situation, pitting cyclists and runners against farmers and land owners,” Ainley said. “Maybe take a step back and consider there is a bigger picture item that could be replaced to have orderly development in this area.”
Poochigian motioned to defer the project until the city can identify some future development and then create a bike path accordingly, but the motion died for lack of second.
Cox said there is already a new housing development on the east side of Santa Fe and said development should be coming to the area sooner rather than later. He suggested continuing the item and have staff come back with a plan in six months. Collins seconded the motion and it passed 3-2, with Poochigian and Taylor voting no.