Parks and wreck?

State scientists, retired EPA official say city allowed dirt dumping in sensitive area of Del Paso Regional Park

Tim Vendlinski, a retired environmental manager for the EPA, inspects a mound of dirt he says ruined a seasonal wetland in Del Paso Regional Park.

Tim Vendlinski, a retired environmental manager for the EPA, inspects a mound of dirt he says ruined a seasonal wetland in Del Paso Regional Park.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

A war of words between scientific experts is being waged over a North Sacramento park.

On May 23, Rich Muhl, an inspector for the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, arrived at Del Paso Regional Park and surveyed what had until recently been—in his view—a seasonal wetland known as Owl Creek Terrace. Muhl observed that construction crews under the direction of the city were tearing apart a grassy expanse opposite Harry Renfree Baseball Field and dumping the excess earth straight into the wetland.

Why crews were plowing up a field near Renfree Field is a complicated question.

In 2011, the city closed that area of the park—at 145 acres, one of the largest in this part of Sacramento—due to constant vandalism of its water and electrical installations. Hoping to attract private investment to rehab the field, the city’s parks department this year used Measure U funding to break ground on a northside parking lot for it—even though Renfree Field already has a sizable parking lot to its south.

Shannon Brown, interim director of the parks department, said there were two reasons for the new construction. “We wanted to provide better ADA access,” Brown said. “And we wanted to make sure there was a certain amount of easy parking secured for the public if [the Sacramento International Baseball Association] had gone forward with its design.”

More on the Sacramento International Baseball Association in a bit.

The water board inspector had a problem with how this second parking lot was being built. Muhl determined crews were dumping fill into a seasonal wetland that supported wildlife and filtered run-off water from Auburn Boulevard before it drained into Arcade Creek. The crews eventually filled the wide, gentle depression with so much dirt that Owl Creek Terrace’s marsh-like qualities vanished.

“Staff observed a degraded wetland adjacent to the fill material,” Muhl wrote in his report. “Staff was concerned that the fill material would impact the wetland feature and mature oak tree.”

Muhl and another water board scientist alerted City Hall and directed it to “investigate and resolve the issue.”

Seven months later, that mound of dirt is still covering Owl Creek Terrace. But who’s to blame is hotly contested.

Dennis Day, a landscape architect for the city, hired the private environmental consulting firm Sycamore to review the water board’s determination. Sycamore surveyed Owl Creek Terrace and gave a thumbs-up to the city’s dirt mound.

“What we have is the finding that it’s not a wetland,” Day told SN&R. “To be one, you need a bowl shape to the terrain, and there has to be certain soils related to a wetland. There’s none of those characteristics of a wetland at the site.”

But one outside expert strongly disagrees. The reason an inspector from the water board went out to the site is because it received a complaint from Tim Vendlinski, who retired as a manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s wetlands regulatory program. Vendlinski grew up next to Del Paso Regional Park and argues that the city is serious mishandling its environmental resources.

“When you talk to the city about this area, they say, ’there’s nothing there,’” Vendlinski said. “Well, it’s been so plundered and mismanaged that the natural aquatic resources don’t have a chance to express themselves; but if it was set aside and rested, you would have a nicely developed little wetland.”

Vendlisnki provided SN&R with an email from an environmental scientist at the water board stating the agency told city officials it disagrees with Sycamore’s findings—and that Owl Creek Terrace is, in fact, a seasonal wetland.

Asked about that, Day said water board officials “haven’t shared that with us.”

The latest dust-up over Owl Creek Terrace followed nearly four years of Vendlinski and other neighborhood residents being at odds with the city over its ill-fated deal with the Sacramento International Baseball Association, or SIBA.

In 2014, city officials entered into a memorandum of understanding with SIBA, one that would have turned over roughly 25 acres of Del Paso Regional Park’s rare, low-elevation oak woodlands to developers for conversion into an overflow parking lot for restaurants and a massive $3 million baseball stadium. The City Council approved the agreement through its consent calendar, without a public hearing or competitive bidding process.

Last week, Brown said the deal with SIBA was dead.

“We worked with them for four years, but they just could never meet any of the terms we were looking for,” she noted.

Vendlisnki is skeptical.

“They offered to give away public park land to a developer without any public input at all,” Vendlisnki said. “If the city did want to get rid of this land, in their eyes, then they should be giving it to a land trust or a conservation group.”