Park access demanded

City Council still not satisfied with locked gates

The parking lot at Five-Mile Recreation Area has remained locked Monday through Thursday since July 2013, forcing many park users to park along Centennial Avenue.

The parking lot at Five-Mile Recreation Area has remained locked Monday through Thursday since July 2013, forcing many park users to park along Centennial Avenue.

PHOTO BY Howard Hardee

Any frustration the public feels when confronting locked gates in Bidwell Park is shared by the Chico City Council. That was clearly expressed during the panel’s regular meeting on Tuesday (June 2).

The council was presented with an informational report on park access by Dan Efseaff, Chico’s parks and natural resources manager, but was not expected to take action. Here’s the general picture: Due to 2013’s sweeping cuts to budget and staff, the city closed several of the park’s gates, blocking vehicular access and parking Monday through Thursday, and most have remained on that schedule ever since. Efseaff explained that the closures were intended to be temporary and that he expected staff would be rehired “and we’d go back to normal,” he said. “Well, normal hasn’t returned in two years.”

At a council meeting in March, Mayor Mark Sorensen spoke of his irritation over the matter: “It drives me stark-raving nuts to ride my bike through One-Mile and see people fighting for street parking.” After that, the city opened the gate at the parking lot near Sycamore Pool at One-Mile Recreation Area seven days a week.

But a handful of gates remain open only on weekends—like the gate to the parking lot at Five-Mile Recreation Area. Councilman Andrew Coolidge said he’s heard plenty of complaints from homeowners living along Centennial Avenue.

“People come to us and [ask] these very simple things: ‘Hey, why can’t you just leave the gates open? There are 15 cars parked outside the gates all day long. What’s the big deal?’ And I don’t have an answer for them.”

To open a particular area to vehicle traffic, Efseff said he’d prefer to have park rangers available to patrol regularly for safety reasons. But Sorensen interjected that “it’s already open, you’ve already got pedestrians and bike riders going through there, so that doesn’t sound like a good reason to keep it locked.”

Sorensen then suggested enlisting volunteers—even council members—to open the gates. Efseaff maintained it would be a logistical mess to coordinate volunteers to unlock each individual gate, but said he’d be all ears if a local organization were willing to open all of them.

That option may be appealing, given how strained the city’s resources have become. Peggy Henry, one of the city’s park maintenance workers, gave an eye-opening testimony: She and just two other workers are responsible for the upkeep of six reservation areas, 36 picnic areas, seven buildings that house 25 restroom stalls, 10 porta-potties, three shower facilities, numerous lighting systems, 10 miles of roadways and bike paths, many more miles of trails, and Sycamore Pool. And that doesn’t account for maintenance of greenways outside of the park such as Lindo Channel, Little Chico Creek and Comanche Creek.

“We hope you can find room in your hearts and the budget to give us more permanent people for the park,” Henry said.

Later in the meeting, following those discussions on the struggle to maintain the city’s existing green spaces, several members of the public spoke in favor of expanding them by adding 759-acre Bidwell Ranch—the city-owned grassy, wide-open space—to neighboring Bidwell Park.

The property was purchased by the city 18 years ago and has remained fenced off ever since. The city has long been studying the feasibility of turning the site, home to vernal pools and other environmentally sensitive habitat, into a mitigation and/or conservation bank. It’s open to the public for occasional docent-led tours and is otherwise used only for grazing cattle.

John Merz, the board president of Friends of Bidwell Park, said the environmental community—including the Altacal Audubon Society, the Yahi Group of the Sierra Club, Butte Environmental Council, and the Mount Lassen Chapter of the California Native Plant Society—unanimously supports of the formal addition of Bidwell Ranch to the park.

“Every one of those groups has taken that position in the last month,” he said. “We believe the conversation about mitigation can be ongoing. Whether it will ever see the light of day is unknown, but we do know that this is an incredibly valuable public resource.”