Delays in master plan sabotage Berryessa economy

Part Three: Residents wait for redevelopment of resorts
2012-08-20T21:32:00Z 2012-12-12T15:43:58Z Delays in master plan sabotage Berryessa economyPETER JENSEN Napa Valley Register
August 20, 2012 9:32 pm  • 

With the high-noon sun above and the blue waters of Lake Berryessa below, the twin engines of the Bureau of Reclamation boat rev louder as the wake behind us grows.

It’s mid-July, and the lake’s recreational charms are on full display. Out beyond the bow, the sun-burnt hills are a backdrop to the water’s unruffled calm, and the stifling heat of the late afternoon is still hours away.

In a tranquil moment such as this, it’s hard to imagine how this lake, so conveniently near yet a world away from the San Francisco and Sacramento metropolitan areas, could find itself so mired in problems today.

Lake Berryessa in the second decade of the 21st century is in a state of tumult unprecedented in its 55 years of existence. Businesses have shuttered, home values have plummeted, the number of foreclosures has risen.

But the national economy is only partially to blame for the lake’s struggles. As a consequence of a change in federal management policy, the flow of tourists, once the lifeblood of the lake’s economy, has dropped considerably from its past peaks. The Bureau of Reclamation is struggling to revive the seven resorts that were once the lake’s economic engines.

Those resorts once had lodging, trailers, restaurants, stores, a tennis court and an ice cream parlor, almost all of which are now gone. Much of this was torn down in the last decade when the bureau, which manages recreation at the lake, opted to change six of the seven resorts’ operators.

We pull up along the lake’s western shore, and bureau spokesman Pete Lucero points out some of the sites where 1,300 trailers and mobile homes once stood. The trailers clogged some of the best recreation areas of the lake, he said. Some had no-trespassing signs posted, making public federal land appear privately owned.

The bureau was successful in clearing out much of Lake Berryessa’s early development. The problem is that nothing has been built to replace what’s been removed. The bureau and the new private operator, Arizona-based Pensus Group, have promised new facilities and new recreational opportunities, but crippling delays have hindered those plans.

The bureau and Pensus are now in mediation to work out a new redevelopment schedule. If this fails, the bureau may pursue terminating the Pensus contract, which runs until 2040, and find another operator.

Little at Lake Berryessa has ever gone according to plan. Recreation wasn’t a part of the original plan for the lake, which had been conceived as a source of water for agriculture and cities in Solano County.

Yet, by the summer of 1958, a year after Monticello Dam’s completion, the lake had 800 boats on it, despite the lack of boat ramps or proper access roads.

That’s when the Bureau of Reclamation contracted with Napa County to have the county assume management of the lake’s recreation.

“We weren’t in the recreation business,” Lucero said. “We were in the dam-building business. Whenever Reclamation has to manage recreation, our first option is to have someone else do it.”

A year later, the National Parks Service produced Lake Berryessa’s original public-use plan.

The plan envisioned the lake as a recreational Shangri-La, drawing droves of tourists from Sacramento and the Bay Area. Day-use sites for picnicking would be built, while the resorts could host longer stays. Boating, hiking, camping, fishing and nature-watching would be the main, family-oriented recreational uses. A four-lane highway would be needed to support all the visitor


The federal government, however, provided no money to fund the plan and Napa County couldn’t afford the cost, so the county solicited private concessionaires to build and run the resorts. The county signed 30-year contracts with each one.

To finance their projects, the concessionaires leased spaces to owners of trailers and mobile homes whose extended stays would provide year-round revenue beyond the peak tourist season.

The trailers weren’t a part of the original plan, but they sprang up along the western shore and stayed there for the next four decades.

“The (original plan) was a great document for public-use planning purposes, but it kind of went sideways,” Lucero said.

Napa County managed recreation until 1975, when it handed it off to Reclamation. The bureau extended the

30-year concessionaire contracts for 20 years.

When the U.S. General Accounting Office and the Department of Interior pressured the bureau to get the resorts to improve their trailer-park atmospheres, they added campgrounds, but stashed them in the worst areas, Lucero said.

It was hard to get the resorts to do more because of the contracts the county had agreed to decades earlier, Lucero added.

“We were managing contracts for 50 years that somebody else had written,” he said.

In the early 2000s, with the contracts expiring at the end of the decade, the bureau overhauled recreation at Lake Berryessa, creating a plan that aligns more closely with the original vision from 1959, Lucero said.

Removing the trailers opened up land for public use, with the goal of fostering short-term visitors to the lake who would have diverse recreational options.

“Their intent was to have a seamless transition. Well, this process has been anything but. We just haven’t seen it yet,” said Stu Williams, a Berryessa resident.

Th Bureau of Reclamation started the bidding process on the new resort contracts in 2007, but that effort hit its first hiccup soon after. Federal lawyers determined that the bureau wasn’t following the law, causing the whole process to be thrown out and started anew.

By the time the second process started, in 2009, many of the resorts’ contracts had expired. When the bureau and Pensus signed the new contract in April 2010, the resorts were already shut down.

“Those contracts expired and there was nothing we could do,” Lucero said.

U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, has blasted Reclamation’s management of the situation, asking that the Bureau of Land Management, which manages wilderness land north of the lake, take over.

“Enough is enough,” Thompson told a congressional subcommittee in May. “Reassurances and placations from the Bureau of Reclamation that they’re fixing the problem are no longer enough. We need the matter resolved.”

Lucero said Reclamation remains committed to its plan for the lake.

“For 50 years this was kind of an exclusive site. It was kind of an unknown jewel. There wasn’t a lot of public use here,” he contends.

Lucero said he imagines a future in which Lake Berryessa is marketed as a part of a “destination Napa” package.

“Before, you never had a nexus between Lake Berryessa and Napa,” said Drew Lessard, a Reclamation deputy area manager. “This mediation with Pensus — we’re getting through that.”

More changes could be on the horizon. Thompson and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have sponsored two bills in Congress that would create a National Conservation Area designation stretching from Snow Mountain, in the Mendocino National Forest, to the lake.

Carol Kunze, the Napa director for Tuleyome, a conservation group pushing the bill, said the conservation area would help serve visitors with an interest in outdoor recreation. Kunze envisions a series of hiking trail corridors that are currently lacking around the lake.

More importantly, focusing on the lake’s natural resources could help diversify its visitors, bringing in more people during the off-season months before and after summer, she said.

“The question is, can the eastern part of Napa County become part of a valuable contributing portion to the Napa County community?” Kunze asked.

Kunze, who lives at the lake, said she believes the conservation designation will be a positive benefit to a lake community suffering so much negativity.

“If we can get concessionaires redeveloped and get the trail systems created, maybe one day people in the Bay Area will pay attention to Lake Berryessa,” Kunze said. “We are really never mentioned unless it’s something negative.”

George Gamble, a rancher who lives on the east side of the lake, disagrees, and questions the benefits of the designation.

“This would be like a piece of Swiss cheese,” Gamble said of the map of the National Conservation Area (NCA), which includes pockets of land in Mendocino, Lake, Yolo and Napa counties. “My feeling is they should keep the NCA north of Napa County. I think it’s a mistake doing it here in Napa County.”

Whatever happens in Washington, D.C., Williams said he hopes Berryessa never loses its down-home, blue-collar character, where residents feel comfortable sitting on one another’s front porches.

He’s lived at locations throughout the Bay Area, but didn’t find that kind of warmth until he came to Lake Berryessa, Williams said. He added he owns properties in the Bay Area that he and his wife still maintain, but the lake always draws them back.

“We cannot get back here fast enough,” Williams said. “I love this lake. It’s paradise for my wife and I.”

Still, Williams can’t help but think the lake’s problems are far from over. It could be years before the reborn resorts begin full operation, and more years before the tourist flow recovers to full strength, healing the lake’s economy.

“I think the whole lake is going to go through a very difficult time,” Williams said. “I really care about what’s happening up here. This area’s worth fighting for.”

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(28) Comments

  1. SlowhandKev
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    SlowhandKev - August 20, 2012 10:58 pm
    I can't believe how bad this has turned out, a chance to start out fresh and create perhaps the greatest recreation area in the country but nobody has a clue.
  2. glenroy
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    glenroy - August 21, 2012 6:40 am
    This was inevitable…this happens in every Blue State one after another....without exception.

    One by one the BOR promised each of the previous resort owners extended lease agreements in exchange for certain conditions, most of which were pandering to complaints by one of the ladies in the article, knowing full they had no intention keeping their end of the deal.
    I read the letters from the BOR to two of the resorts that boarder our properties, the conditions were met to the letter by the resort owners…the BOR followed up confirming the conditions were met, thanked them, then informed them they had days to vacate.
    It’s the same core behind trying to destroy what’s left of the region recreation with the Snow Ball Mountain Land Grab…

    The county lost millions in taxes and the two supervisors up there were on the side that ruined the lake....they did the same deal to Piners.
  3. DannyK
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    DannyK - August 21, 2012 7:20 am
    Berryessa's heyday was in the 50s when people did not have the opportunity to fly to Las Vegas in an hour and when people were patient enough to drive a very windy road. Access has always been a problem at the Lake and then throw in competing government agencies and you have a menu for failure.
  4. Morris
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    Morris - August 21, 2012 8:42 am
    “Those contracts expired and there was nothing we could do,” Lucero said.

    Unbelievable. The BOR is in control, and says they could do nothing? This is additional proof that Berryessa should be taken out of these incompetent hands and turned over to the BLM. Congressman Thompson, instead of trying to push through a conservation bill to get more control, when the federal government already owns most of the lands, you should be forcing the BOR to move aside! Quit talking, and let's see some action from your office.
  5. Lberryessa
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    Lberryessa - August 21, 2012 8:48 am
    It has been the primary goal of the Sierra Club, Berryessa Trails and now Tuleyome to remove power boats from the lake. They will achieve this in the same way that they have succeeded so far. They were responsible for the closure of the big island lagoon. They have a vision of a water trail around the lake, on the water, why didn’t she mention that, it’s on Tuleyome's web site. They will continue to chisel away little by little until the lake will be so restrictive to power boats that it just won’t be conducive to water skiing or wake boarding. She has even said that the water skiers can go to the big body of water, yeah right. I wish that Peter Jensen would investigate on my comment and you would really find out who created the destruction at the lake, just like she planned.
  6. fmmt47
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    fmmt47 - August 21, 2012 9:26 am
    The BOR and BLM knows what they are doing, they and other "wilderness advocates" don't want you to utilize the lake and/or it's resources so the area can remain "pristine" Next you will have the Snow Mountain area basically off limits to any type of commercial activity.
  7. Lberryessa
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    Lberryessa - August 21, 2012 9:54 am
    I'm sorry, I must clarify something in my previous post. I stated that the big island lagoon was closed. It is not closed if you have an electric boat, no kidding, an electric boat. Power boats are not permitted.
  8. sdnapa
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    sdnapa - August 21, 2012 12:26 pm
    Where was Mike Thompson then? Where is Mike Thompson now? Busy writing letters about what "needs to be done" to balance the budget?

    Meanwhile, an entire community is in ruins, and what does our leadership do? Shrug their shoulders. Not enough voters in this district I guess.

    Can't wait until the BOR demands that Markley Cove be crushed to the ground, leaving but one place on the lake w/ facilities. And I suppose the BOR will say it will be a "smooth transition" to hand over Markley to Pensus. HA! What a joke. Where are all the boats & house boats going to berth while the BOR decides whether to give Pensus even one permit to build a dock (uncovered at that) for boat storage? And what will happen to all those boats if they do get moved to Lupine Shores? Sometimes it doesn't rain people. There's not enough space in that cove to even accommodate all the boats currently at Markley.

    This whole situation is a raw deal - all under the ruse of environmental concern & protection.

  9. diamond4850
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    diamond4850 - August 21, 2012 12:57 pm
    In the early '60's I spent alot of time at Spanish Flats. My grand parents were champion golfers. They stayed for weeks with several fellow golfers in one of the various small apt complex's that lined the main resort drive, many 'adults' gathered at the club house to socialize, eat/drink. It was a beautifully well maintained park. I remember swimming in the warm lake waters designated for family use with picnic tables/BBQ's across from the club house. I went 'trick or treat' several years to my gr parents friends condos, trailers there. I have great memories ...and remember the shiney big/famous/loud speed boats that raced off the shores. Use to watch them being towed up 29 then onto Monticello, past Vichy Springs, upward on the winding narrow road, halfway in the on coming lanes, until reaching the Corners to their home stretch.
  10. guesswhoiam
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    guesswhoiam - August 21, 2012 3:59 pm
    "As a consequence of a change in federal management policy"

    Wrong, do your homework. As a result of a federal lawsuit by the Sierra club for "exclusive use" of the public land surrounding the lake, the Federal government made changes to its policy.

    Give credit where credit is due. When leftists use the environmental agenda to change policy it crushes the economy in a lot of places.
  11. guesswhoiam
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    guesswhoiam - August 21, 2012 4:12 pm
    Lberryessa is absolutely correct. I've said this before on this subject but it blows me away that Sierra club wants to "conserve" a "wilderness" area that is man made? Next thing you know man made city parks will be "conserved" from ruckus children playing.
  12. OutdoorPatriot
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    OutdoorPatriot - August 21, 2012 4:27 pm
    I have gone kayaking between Big Island and the shore in the 'closed zone'. So many powerboats and jetskis violated the closure it became too dangerous to go back.
  13. OutdoorPatriot
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    OutdoorPatriot - August 21, 2012 4:28 pm
    Please provide evidence of this Sierra Club lawsuit you mention. Because I've searched everywhere and find no evidence the Sierra Club sued the BOR to change the Lake Berryessa management.
  14. Right
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    Right - August 21, 2012 4:31 pm
    As a long-time visitor to the lake, I have to agree with some comments in the article about the remarkable beauty and recreation potential there. And I'm happy to see some of the old resorts gone. They were trashy and attracted groups of hoodlums at some times of year. Improvements were way overdue. The ideas for new areas for non-motorized boats, hiking trails, and land conservation designation make a lot of sense. The BOR sure did a lousy job with the contracting process and the poor economy is no doubt causing Pensus to renegotiate what it offered, but the personal attacks are overblown and not constructive. Thompson has been right on target and the trails group appears to be one of very few entities doing anything positive at the lake.
  15. Right
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    Right - August 21, 2012 4:40 pm
    Of course, users of non-motorized boats of all kinds can enjoy the are also. The big island lagoon makes up a miniscule portion of the lake. There's still lots of flat-water recreation space for speed boating and water skiing.
  16. Right
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    Right - August 21, 2012 4:50 pm
    I've seen suggestions for small designated non-motorized boat areas on the lake. As an avid canoeist and kayaker, I like the idea - speed boating and water skiing isn't very compatible with non-motorized paddling. Both uses should be accomodated so that nobody gets hurt. I've never heard of these organizations suggesting that all power boats be removed from the lake. Can you site any article, letter, or document where this idea was ever mentioned by any one of these groups?
  17. Lberryessa
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    Lberryessa - August 21, 2012 5:53 pm
    So then you would agree that the proposed water trail is a good idea? And electric boats are motorized by the way, in fact, they make wakeboard boats that are electric that are as powerful as gas boats so they would be allowed, right? It's just the message that's being sent, power boats are bad for the environment so we (the people that have chosen to enjoy ourselves with boats that have internal combustion engines are bad and therefore not allowed) are penalized and are restricted from the big island lagoon. Very soon there will be no more flat-water in the name of fairness or liberalism.
  18. Landshark
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    Landshark - August 21, 2012 7:51 pm
    One has to take issue with the rhetoric of “there was nothing we could do” and the “exclusive use” term. A small number of kayaker's have attempted to obtain exclusive use, the very buzz word used by the local Sierra Club and BOR representatives and either limit or exclude power boating & water-sports on the lake.
    With 165 miles of shoreline, resorts using less than four percent, there was and is ample locations to accommodate all of the raving fans of the lake in all sports however with the negative pretense, the saga has evolved into collateral damage, lost jobs, lost tax base, diminished property values, abandoned mobile home sites and Bureau of Reclamation “reasons”.
    The BOR's Visitors Service Plan (VSP) 2001, the Record of Decision (ROD) 2006 and in 2012, consequences of poor planning.
    Waste water violations could impact the home & land owners for decades, all due to irresponsible planning.
    Trails, really?

  19. Lberryessa
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    Lberryessa - August 22, 2012 6:10 am
    Use the NVR search feature and enter "Berryessa doesn't need motor boats"
  20. garretth37
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    garretth37 - August 22, 2012 9:21 am
    I didn't see anything wrong with the lake resorts, the trailers were awful and just down right ugly. What I saw people enjoying the lake, they were on vacation, doing there down time, spending the weekend at the lake. Sure clean up was needed. Common Sense boating rules were needed, power boats and now power boats needed to have zones. Swimmers and paddle boats needed safe areas. This lake could have been planned to make it really nice, businesses like hotels, inns cafes, pizza places, steak houses, boat and sporting good stores to carter to the needs of the visitors, the residents and the far away tourists. What we are going to get is something to drive by, take a hike or pitch a tent. Wildlife viewing will be a big one.
  21. Right
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    Right - August 22, 2012 10:58 am
    Using the search, I found a letter to the editor with that title. This is the basis, then, for the comment claiming that three environmental/recreation organizations have as their "primary goal" to "remove power boats from the lake?" I read the letter twice to understand, given the misleading title. Clearly, the writer is not suggesting that all power boats (or any at all) be removed from the lake. The title of the letter, given by the news editor, not the writer, misrepresents it's content. The writer objects to development of a power boat storage site, which in her opinion would emphasize power boating above other forms of recreation. Nowhere in the letter does she say power boats should be removed from the lake. And she doesn't claim that this is the position of any environmental or recreation group. In fact, the letter reads, "It's time the Lake Berryessa Recreation Area balanced boating with the needs and interests of other recreational users." Sounds right to me.
  22. Right
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    Right - August 22, 2012 11:07 am
    I don't know anything about the "water trail," but will look into that. I think the overriding message (and I think it's a good one) is that a balance of uses should be better accomodated at the lake. That would likely improve safety for all user groups, and increase economic development options in the area. We all have our favorite pastimes. One things for sure, spending our efforts misrepresenting other people's views or attacking those with differing political leanings won't help resolve the problems at the lake.
  23. Right
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    Right - August 22, 2012 11:12 am
    Plans are also in place for new and renovated power boat launches at at least as many locations as when the resorts were in full operation.
  24. Lberryessa
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    Lberryessa - August 22, 2012 12:33 pm
    Carol kunze, there are some people here that don't know your position on power boats and jet skis so would you please tell us how you feel about them. Can you please provide us with the lake map that you had on Berressa Trails web-site with the water trail and all the 5 mph coves that you proposed? You know, the one that only allowed power boats in the big body of water.
  25. OutdoorPatriot
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    OutdoorPatriot - August 22, 2012 1:38 pm
    5mph coves sound like a great idea! Less shoreline erosion as well.
  26. guesswhoiam
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    guesswhoiam - August 22, 2012 2:51 pm
    Where do you think the Record of Decision came from? They just made a decision for no reason? No it came as a result of pending lawsuit for "exclusive use". A local Sierra club member whom lives in berryessa highlands. Spent her free time walking through trailer sites at the resorts towards the water. When she was told to get out their site she made note. After doing this she and her Sierra club friends went to the Feds and threatened suit for exclusive use of public land. When faced with lawsuit the Feds had to respond. Their response was the Record of Decision. I happened to be at one of the resorts when the government went around and advised all of the consetionairs the trailers will have to be removed. They had the Sheriff's department there to guard the Feds and the Sierra club member who followed them and around and witnessed the fruits of her labor as the ROD was read to these consetionairs. That's first hand knowledge. I was there.
  27. Lberryessa
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    Lberryessa - August 22, 2012 4:26 pm
    It's a man/women made lake. Just to be PC I had to include women so that I don't offend anybody. Who cares about shoreline erosion? Does it contribute to global warming? I give up, I don't even know why I try, it's a loosing battle. When I read some of the comments I realize there is no hope for Berryessa, except for, "the future generations" and kayakers.
  28. MikeHunter1
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    MikeHunter1 - December 08, 2012 12:10 am
    Aloha, I was one of those in Rancho Monticello who maintained a very esthetically pleasing mobile home and who lost it to this madness. I used to have campers and day use people come up on my porch thinking I was not home to see what was there for the taking. I had one of those "No trespassing" signs but it did not mean you could not access the lake, just my home or for that matter my tent if I was camping. I now live in Hawaii where people in the upscale areas of Lani Kai and Kailua tried to cut off access to the beaches behind their homes and you know what? The LAW states that they MUST give access. So groups of us went around, tore down fences, signs and chained off parking areas and used the beaches that belong to every resident in Hawaii. I never once caught any flack from anyone as I cut across their space to get to the lake. I think People like Carol Kunze have an agenda & it is transparent. What the resorts SHOULD have done was phased out the older trailers when owners changed.
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