Council gives OK to big lawn

The council this week turned three relatively insignificant matters into classic displays of local politics, a veritable wrestling match of political will and philosophy.

In the end, it voted to allow a homeowner to keep and tend his lawn, which extends onto public land, partially raise bus fares and perhaps permit advertising on the buses, and allow the builder of a downtown office building to plant five palm trees next to his project.

The first matter was the appeal by a homeowner of the Parks Commission ruling that he remove the landscaping behind his house on Guynn Bridge Court. Marshall Gregory is one of just a handful of folks whose property encroachments onto Lindo Channel have yet to be resolved.

Those encroachments, 37 to be exact, were first identified by dentist Michael Jones seven years ago. The properties in question had over time crept onto the channel property, which had been dedicated as park land by Annie Bidwell nearly 100 years ago. While that property was under the jurisdiction of the county, nothing was done to rein in the encroachments, and in time buildings and parking lots, pools and fencing were erected.

Along came Jones, who noted the properties in many cases impeded public access and demanded something be done. In most cases the encroachments were removed. In a few, where that was not so easily done, the city tried to make some sort of land swap but learned it legally could not do so without state legislation. That legislation is now in the hands of the state Senate, awaiting approval and signature by the governor.

Gregory was holding out hope he could purchase the property under the new law. But his property does not qualify under the legislation as written. So he appealed the Parks Commission vote, saying that removing the lawn was a hardship and that he had permission from the county to encroach.

During the council debate, some members, like Steve Bertagna, suggested it was silly to make Gregory retract his lawn because public access to the property is severely limited. And Councilmember Larry Wahl suggested doing so would create a fire hazard by allowing noxious weeds to grow where a lush lawn once lay.

Councilmembers Coleen Jarvis, Dan Nguyen-Tan and Scott Gruendl all argued that the city has a policy to deal with these encroachments, and that policy should either be followed or changed by those who don’t like it.

In the course of the nearly two-hour council discussion, it was learned that Gregory could have applied to the Parks Commission for a permit to maintain a garden—two encroachers had done so successfully. Such gardens are allowed, under city policy, only if they are already in existence and do not include permanent irrigation.

In the end, Councilmember Dan Herbert made a motion to grant Gregory’s appeal. The motion died on a 4-3 vote. Then Jarvis made a motion to kill the appeal. It, too, died on a 4-3 vote. Finally Mayor Maureen Kirk, the swing vote in the first two efforts, made a motion to grant the appeal with the condition that Gregory remove the underground irrigation, which means he will have to water the area by hand-held hose or removable lawn sprinkler.

With that weighty matter laid to rest, the council tackled the issue of allowing builder Steve Gonsalves to plant five palm trees next to the four-story office building he is constructing at Sixth and Main streets, next to the Senator Theatre.

In this case the Parks Commission had denied Gonsalves the right to plant the palm trees, saying they did not qualify as street trees, which must provide a certain amount of shade. The council, however, noted that Gonsalves is installing more conventional, and qualified, shade trees along the sidewalks. The palms are more of an ornamental addition, and as long as Gonsalves assumes liability and maintenance of the palms, they are allowed. Unanimous vote.

As for bus fares, the conservatives took a page from their brethren in Sacramento and protested the suggested increase in bus rates. Wahl complained that this, combined with the state’s vehicle license fee increase and anticipated local increases in sewer and water fees, would be too much of a burden on lower-income folks.

And Herbert questioned how increasing rates would increase ridership. The problem was that, at the beginning of the council meeting, in a routine uncontested vote, the council approved the city’s budget, which includes improvements in the bus lines. The increased fees and allowing advertising were to offset the improvement costs.

Council voted to send the matter back to its Internal Affairs Committee for further discussion, with the recommendation that limited advertising be allowed and that rate increases apply only to single-use rides, not monthly passes. In the meantime, the improved services will go into place.