A fence runs through it

Activists want to open up more riverfront access, but Pocket residents fear losing their security

Tom Higgins and the Friends of the Sacramento River Parkway want more public access to the levees.

Tom Higgins and the Friends of the Sacramento River Parkway want more public access to the levees.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Hoping to tap into millions of dollars in voter-approved bond money now available to purchase open space and easements in California, the Friends of the Sacramento River Parkway have set its sights on the levees of the Pocket and Little Pocket areas.

This is where the world-class bike trails of the American River Parkway come to an end, diverting travelers away from the river’s natural beauty and onto the paved streets of Sacramento, before the trail picks up again to the south.

Members of the nine-year-old conservation group envision continuous public access and environmental protection for the Sacramento River all the way from Sutter County to Freeport Boulevard. But it’s a vision that clashes with the wishes and rights of Pocket residents.

“I’d donate to their charity if they could just pass up this one-quarter mile, 16 houses. Give it to us as a gift and we’ll give something back,” pleaded attorney Jeff Hunt who lives along the Sacramento River levee in a neighborhood known as the Little Pocket.

Hunt, who lives with his wife and three children, recently bought a home along the river and is worried that a proposed bike path on top of the levee would destroy his family’s quality of life.

Hunt’s home looks like many of the upper-middle-class homes from the street, but his backyard is a virtual paradise. A pool, hot tub and small guest house melts into a landscape of stunning flowers and greenery. Outside the back fence sits the flower-covered levee. A staircase leads to the top, offering a tranquil, panoramic view of the Sacramento River.

It is a view and access coveted by the Friends of the Sacramento River Greenway, which is now lobbying city and county leaders to pursue buying property or easements along the river.

The group’s basic premise is that the Sacramento River is a natural wonder and an impressive place that the public sometimes misses because the city has developed in such a way that it’s not focused on the river.

“One of the real challenges is to work on some of the areas where the public isn’t allowed,” said Tom Higgins, a bicyclist and legislative aide who chairs the group. “Specifically in the Pocket and Little Pocket area, we’re hoping that the city will purchase the easements where necessary and build access where it is already available so the public can realize the beautiful river that is there and the benefits of being able to access the river.”

The Friends of the Sacramento River Greenway would like to see an uninterrupted bike path and parkway along the entire Sacramento River from Freeport to Sutter County, providing a transportation corridor to downtown. But the problem is that much of the levee land is privately owned and not accessible to the public.

“It’s a nice little river community,” said Hunt, “but if that [the bike trail] got opened up, everything would change. I wouldn’t feel that safe for my wife and kids if that was wide open. That one guy out of a million and there goes my kids.”

The Pocket and Little Pocket are neighborhoods on peninsulas jutting into the Sacramento River, just south of Sutterville Road to Garcia Bend Park. Originally established by Portuguese farmers, the fertile land was sowed with tomatoes, gyp corn, sugar beets, wheat and barley.

Beginning in the 1950s, the farmland was sold off to developers and sectioned into subdivided single-family lots. Houses bordering on the levee were given title to the riverfront, thus giving the homeowners the land under the levee.

“Fifty, 75 years ago, when you bought [land along the river], it went right to the water,” said Frances Silva, whose husband’s family were the original owners of her property. “That’s what you bought, that’s what you got.”

Silva, a sprightly woman of 78 with pure white hair, has lived in her modest home in the Pocket since 1957. She remembers when she could see her husband’s truck coming in from the fields from over a mile away, knowing it was time to start dinner.

A lot has changed since then. The area is now lined with luxury homes, making her unpretentious dwelling as out of place as her mid-1960s era Cadillac in a neighborhood of Lexuses and Land Rovers. The levee is directly behind her house.

Silva spends an inordinate amount of her time explaining to people who are using the gravel access road on top of the levee that they are trespassing. People either jump or walk around the fences or enter through the random public access sites. Next to the fence that lies alongside Silva’s property is a 45-yard slice of public levee land. Like a small desert town, signs are posted on each end of the property saying, “You are now entering (or leaving) city of Sacramento Property. For information call 264-5200.”

“The trouble is,” said Silva, “when you try to explain it to people when they trespass that it’s like they are walking through our backyard. You just can’t get it across to them when they want to come down to the river.”

The loss of privacy and fear of crime are the major concerns for the property owners. The levee is high there, 20 to 30 feet, giving its visitors a bird’s eye view of the homeowners’ backyards.

The riverside alternates between stretches of grassy bottomland (much like the American River trail) with large cottonwood trees choked with mistletoe, to 20-foot drop-offs directly into the river. Docks are scattered on the riverfront, some derelict, others brand new. Large sail boats and cabin cruisers are moored to the newer ones.

“There used to be two or three trespassers a year,” said Silva, “now it’s two or three almost a day.”

Bill Allison has lived in the same house most of his life. He bought the home from his parents and lives there with them, his wife and three children. He remembers when there were rows of orchids where houses now stand.

“The issue is that our current city parks aren’t being maintained at the level that they should be,” said Allison, “and this would just make the levee and the bike trail that they dream of to be another park that would not be maintained. They already told us that they will not be able to provide the level of police support that it would take to patrol this area.”

Yet advocates believe such issues can be worked out, and that it’s in the public interest to do so and open up this stretch of river.

“The law would require that they be compensated for their land,” said Higgins. “That’s guaranteed under the Constitution, but I think that the regional needs and the natural geography calls for opening up the levee. We see this as a real positive project that can provide a great resource for the region and we know that there are challenges and know that it won’t happen overnight and we don’t believe that we should take anyone’s property from them. We do want to work with the city and county to maximize the dollars that are available and to build this wonderful park resource for the whole region. Some hard decisions are going to have to be made.”