American Canyon hikers, birders and other nature enthusiasts who hoped they were on the verge of getting access to American Canyon’s Newell Open Space Preserve are going to have to wait until next year. Presented on Tuesday with a plan to open the preserve this fall, a goal they set last year, city councilmembers balked at the $138,000 price tag.
Donated by Jack and Bernice Newell in 1999, the 640-acre preserve in the hills east of the city offers spectacular views of San Pablo Bay and beyond, but access to the area currently requires crossing railroad tracks and other private land, and consequently is limited to one day a year when volunteers escort visitors in and out of the area.
Last year the council decided to prioritize ongoing public access and contracted with Questa Engineering of Point Richmond to study the issue with the goal of opening this October.
Jeff Peters of Questa presented the study’s findings at this week’s city council meeting.
Out of five possible entry routes, the study recommends creating a 2,500-foot-long multipurpose trail just north of East Donaldson Way near where Newell Drive currently ends. The construction cost includes a five-car parking lot, fencing, signage and a picnic area.
Coming at the end of three years of belt-tightening budgets and the city manager’s cautious recommendation earlier in the meeting for only gradual restoration of those budget cuts, none of the councilmembers could justify spending money on the construction, or the estimated $50,000 annual maintenance cost for a Porta-Potty, trash can service, damage repair and graffiti removal, erosion management, spraying, weed control and 500 hours of security/ranger services.
“As much as I would like to see Newell open,” said Vice Mayor Mark Joseph, “I have a problem with spending money just because it makes me feel good.” Joseph said the October deadline was less important than being financially responsible. Other councilmembers agreed.
“Maybe October is not it for us,” said Councilmember Belia Ramos Bennett.
Councilmembers were also wary of unforeseen expenses.
“We’re getting into something we haven’t done before,” said Ramos Bennett.
Councilmember Kenneth Leary said he hoped residents who want the space open would help raise funds to pay for it.
“I’d like to see a groundswell from the public,” said Leary.
But City Manager Dana Shigley cautioned that volunteer projects, while saving the city money, take time.
“Think bocce courts,” Shigley said, referring to the multi-year, ongoing volunteer effort to complete bocce ball courts at Veterans Memorial Park.
Councilmember Joan Bennett said she was trying to figure out how many people would benefit from access.
“I’m kind of stuck with trying to understand in my own mind how many people would use (the open space) to make it worthwhile,” Joan Bennett said. Kimberly Park is used by hundreds of children, she said. The council has made long-awaited improvements at Kimberly Park another priority.
Shigley interjected that the Kimberly Park project would cost much more and, like the Newell Open Space, doesn’t generate revenue for the city.
“Here’s our dilemma,” said Mayor Leon Garcia. Garcia said funding was the “reality check” to the council’s desire to offer residents amenities.
After questioning Peters and Creighton Wright, the city’s Parks and Recreation director, about less expensive interim measures, councilmembers voted unanimously to go with Questa’s recommendation, but to postpone the opening to coincide with National Trails Day, the first Saturday in June 2014.
Shigley reminded councilmembers that the situation might be the same next year. Referring to what she called the “time-quality-money triangle,” Shigley said: “You never have all three.”
Council instructed staff to explore more limited hours of operation and partnering with Solano County’s adjoining Lynch Canyon Preserve for ranger services and report back.
The next opportunity for the public to hike in the Newell Open Space Preserve is June 8 from 8 a.m. to12 p.m.