Whose Estuary?

Some city officials disagree with homeowners over who should control “lost” publicly owned pathways and miniparks along the water’s edge.


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Property owners strongly oppose the idea of re-establishing public spaces on the estuary.

Photos by Mike Rosati

Long before John Knox White was a member of the Alameda Planning Board, he had heard stories of so-called “lost” pathways that connected to small public spaces along the estuary just south of the High Street Bridge. In 2007, White started blogging about what he had found: three pathways, roughly 10 feet wide and 100 feet long, that went from Fernside Boulevard to the water’s edge. There were no markings then designating these access points as public areas. On one of the paths, a property owner had posted a sign erroneously declaring it private property.

City staffers later learned that the narrow paths led to publicly owned, 60-foot-wide bulb-outs—sort of miniparks along the estuary. Today, six property owners who live on each side of the three paths say they had no idea that portions of what they thought were their properties actually belong to the citizens of Alameda. Over the years, property owners had built fencing on the public land, and in one case, a property owner installed a pool that encroached on city property.

Over the years, the city had mostly ignored the issue, until last summer when White, now a member of the Alameda Planning Board, urged the city to reassert control of the public paths and the publicly owned bulb-outs. White also raised the idea of enhancing the area, possibly with a small dock, for visitors to enjoy the water.

“What do we want on this space, and what is the appropriate way for our public land to intersect with what was also previously public land?” White said in an interview. “Are we going to give away the public water in front of our public land and allow people to own that and cut everyone from Alameda off? Or are we going to provide enough space so people come down someday and enjoy some time during sunset, sitting on the water and feeling like they’re in a public space?”

 

There are three public pathways connecting Fernside Boulevard to the estuary.

The local property owners, however, strongly oppose the idea of re-establishing public spaces on what they thought was their land. They say that over the years, the area has attracted homeless people and that security camera footage has captured people committing lewd acts. They’re also against any plan to re-establish miniparks near the water, noting that the area is not currently zoned for any use, let alone a park.

Rob Barics and Bethany Polentz purchased one of the homes next to one of the public paths in 2013. They said they were unaware that the city owned a corner of their property when they bought the home and that after some run-ins with people after dark and other safety issues, they erected additional fencing from their property line toward the water. They also cleaned up what was previously a weedy pathway that kept filling up with garbage. The former owners of their property told them the city had done nothing to maintain the area during the last 30 years. Last year, a homeless man toted a couch near the water and scattered his belongings next to their home, said Barics.

Polentz said an “estuary pirate” has scavenged or stole homeowners’ belongings in the area. “He has an actual pirate flag on his boat and scopes things out. Pirates actually come around here and take things off of people’s docks and yards.”

Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri, also an Alameda native, sheepishly admitted that he took the paths to the estuary as a teenager. He said the department has received an uptick recently in the number of calls about the public access points, but he suggested that it could be due to the fact that the pathways have received attention lately or related to the rise in the number of homeless people on the Island. Rolleri also acknowledged that many of his nonnative, newer officers were unaware until recently that the areas even existed.

Rolleri said at a recent council meeting that he understands the property owners’ concerns. “There is no one in this room who would want to tolerate what I saw in some of those videos and photographs. Whatever side you’re on, it’s not OK.” Area residents say they’ve seen homeless people masturbating near the water.

After White ignited the public-versus-private-ownership debate during a Planning Board meeting last year, Barics set up a website, making the case against expanding the access points to include a dock within the bulb-out sections. The site offers a history of the Fernside area development, once known as the “Water-side Terrace,” and includes video clips of people misbehaving near the estuary.

Barics also disputes the Planning Board and city staff’s recommendations for how much of the 60-foot-wide bulb-outs should be preserved for public use. Planners recommended 35 feet, while other city staffers have suggested 18 feet. But neither size appears connected to any specific reasoning—a fact that was noted recently by several Alameda city councilmembers.

Over the past decade, the city appears to have been aware of the potential controversy involving the three public access points. The issue had been “festering,” said Alameda Assistant City Attorney Andrico Penick, during the council meeting. “This is not a problem of recent creation, but is a problem that has been growing over the course of many years.”

But it only recently came to forefront when the city decided to negotiate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the transfer of half of the tidal canal. In 1990, the federal government had offered to hand over half of the estuary to Alameda and the other half to Oakland. At the time, Alameda didn’t accept the offer, but then restarted negotiations in 2015.

The initial phase of the Tidal Canal Project included carving out submerged parcels for each of the 84 properties on the estuary and selling them to homeowners at a cost of $10,000, with transfer fees capped at $1,000. Six of the eight commercial water properties on the estuary sold for between $20,000 and $280,000, according the city. In all, the city has grossed $970,000 in revenue from the title transfers. However, the city continues to be at loggerheads with the owners of the six properties adjacent to the pathways.

For the other property owners along the estuary, the changes in title helped eliminate uncertainty, because the process cleared up questions about who owns the submerged lands and the docks floating above. But the process also revealed decades of missteps by previous city administrations. Plus, it’s unclear why any of the six property owners were allowed over the years to encroach on city lands, or why the city was unaware about the bulb-outs until recently.

During the April meeting, Penick displayed the city’s only known official map of the area—from 1912. In addition, there is no documentation that clears up why the public access points were even created. Penick believes they were established as “view corridors” for Alameda citizens to be able to visit the water’s edge.

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But each pathway and public access point has its own set of entanglements. The westernmost access point near the High Street Bridge had been narrowed to 5 feet in width after a property owner installed shrubbery on each side. The middle access point, the one near the home of Barics and Polentz, includes a badly damaged concrete path. And the third access point not only includes a swimming pool built on public land, but also appears to be unsuitable for possible future public use because it now doubles as a driveway for a pair of garages on the side of one home and a pathway to the other adjoining property. The city intends to offer the homeowner with the pool an opportunity to lease the city-owned land.

During the April Alameda City Council meeting, councilmembers appeared to be sympathetic to the property owners’ concerns. “We really need to listen to the people involved,” said Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft. She later added, “This isn’t about rich homeowners that live on the water wanting to keep other people away. It truly isn’t. I think we could all ask ourselves what would we do if this was going on in my backyard?”

Meanwhile, Councilmembers Jim Oddie and Malia Vella focused on directing city staffers to make quick improvements to the current state of the public access points. “While we’re asserting our muscle, so to speak, in ownership, I think we need to back that up and assert our responsibility” for maintaining the pathways, said Oddie. “It appears the city over the years hasn’t done its due diligence in terms of protecting our properties and the various encroachments.” Both Oddie and Vella suggested resurfacing the access points and improving signage on them, along with exploring the idea of erecting low-rise gates at the Fernside end of the paths.

But White thinks councilmembers are placing the concerns of property owners over those of the public. “We fight so hard for public access everywhere,” he said, “and their initial reaction is to make it difficult and also help legitimize giving away public access?”

More than 600 letters, he said, were sent to the city last year in favor of preserving the public’s use of the paths and access points. White also said that it’s disconcerting that some councilmembers, particularly Mayor Trish Spencer, have suggested excluding the public from a debate about what to do with the public access points nearest the estuary. “What about some community meetings? Let the public figure it out?”

But Polentz said White has unfairly portrayed the homeowners as NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard). “He just painted people here as greedy landowners who are trying to steal things from the city.

“These are not parks, and the whole idea that the city is looking to give away land is not correct,” Polentz added. “Nobody is trying to take land.”

 

Published online on June 5, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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