Pay to play?

Council moves forward on possible Upper Park fee; more to come on emergency shelters, syringe disposal

Much of the unpaved portion of Upper Park Road has been closed to cars since 2012. Recently, however, the council voted to open the roadway past the Diversion Dam gate two days a week.

Much of the unpaved portion of Upper Park Road has been closed to cars since 2012. Recently, however, the council voted to open the roadway past the Diversion Dam gate two days a week.

CN&R File Photo

Chicoan Jesica Giannola is all for supporting the maintenance of Upper Bidwell Park, but she doesn’t think charging citizens a parking fee is the way to do it.

She told the City Council as much at its regular meeting this week, which fell on Super Tuesday (March 3). The council was considering whether to implement a fee—$2 for a daily parking pass or $25 for an annual pass, the idea being that the funds would help pay for park upkeep.

Giannola advocated for a compromise: implementing a voluntary parking pass program that encourages donations. She’d happily support it, she said.

“I know we need money to fix roads … . But I’m concerned with excluding the population that can’t afford it, for whatever reason,” she added.

Ultimately, the council voted 5-2—with Councilman Karl Ory and Councilwoman Ann Schwab dissenting—to direct staff to create an implementation plan that will be presented at a future meeting. It will include, among other things, details regarding who is exempt from the fee (such as seniors, veterans, families with kids, classrooms, and those who are disabled and/or low-income), with the caveat that they’d have to get an annual pass. Also, staff will break down how the city would enforce such a program, and the associated costs.

Access and maintenance of Upper Park Road have been recurring topics for much of the past decade. The city has weighed implementing a parking fee for years, even conducting a survey in 2018. At the time, a majority supported a modest fee.

Prior to the council’s vote, Erik Gustafson, public works director of operations and maintenance, reminded the panel how Upper Park’s high volume of users—more than 400,000 vehicle trips in 2017—has degraded the road. The city hasn’t been able to afford proper maintenance, he explained.

This fee could change that, bringing in as much as $750,000 to $800,000 annually to the city’s park fund, Gustafson added, which also could be used to improve parking.

“The intent is really to develop something that’s going to maintain the infrastructure up there, because right now, we don’t have it,” he said.

That was a convincing point for Vice Mayor Alex Brown. She said that while it was difficult for her to support imposing more financial obligations on Chicoans, she didn’t see another option.

“I want to see us pursue this and make it work because we are desperate for that funding, and we are not being good stewards of our natural resources,” she said.

In contrast, Schwab said she was not in favor of penalizing people for making a healthy choice to be active outdoors.

The fee-implementation plan also will include previous council direction regarding access. In December, the panel voted to close Upper Park Road two days a week, open its full length another two days, and allow entry to cars up to Salmon Hole the rest of the time.

Irrespective of the fee, Upper Park Road will undergo some changes this year. The city will reconstruct approximately 4.4 miles of the road—from Horseshoe Lake to the park’s end—funded by a $700,000 grant from the State Water Resources Control Board.

Also on Tuesday, the council voted to send several of the night’s agenda items to the committee level or discuss them at a future council meeting.

Among them was the topic of public syringe disposal receptacles. It was the most inflammatory agenda item of the night, though debate was mild in comparison to prior meetings, which have drawn massive protests and dozens of speakers (see “Protests continue,” Newslines, Feb. 20).

Five of the nine people who addressed the council spoke against the city installing any disposal containers. Kimberly Craven said she opposes syringe distribution, a program of the Northern Valley Harm Reduction Coalition. She told the panel that the coalition should be responsible for disposal, not the city.

“I refuse to live in a city and condone all this drug-enabling [behavior],” she said.

On the other side of the debate, Patrick Newman, of Chico Friends on the Street, noted that the state is experiencing a housing crisis and people are inevitably ending up on the streets. Society can choose to “go to war” with those people or implement measures to benefit everyone, he said.

“This is the grown-up approach to this. If you say you don’t want to find needles around, then here we have … a partial solution to that,” he said.

The council voted 4-3 to hold a full discussion on the topic at a future meeting. Councilmembers Ory, Sean Morgan and Kasey Reynolds dissented.

In addition, the panel voted unanimously to have a conversation at a future meeting regarding how the city might help provide emergency shelter for homeless individuals, given Safe Space Winter Shelter’s recent closure.

During his comments on the subject, Mayor Randall Stone said the city has been in property negotiations regarding a Work Training Center building at 2255 Fair St. He said several councilmembers are working on public-private partnerships, but it’s all happening “behind closed doors.”

“Now that Safe Space is closed for the season, we know that there’s 60 people that are going out on the streets every single day in March. We know that we have people that are dying on our streets,” he said. “I want the public to know what it is that we are doing now, what has been proposed, and what are some of the options.”