As a boat turns out of Lodi Lake, the sluggish Mokelumne River opens up to towering trees and soaring birds.
The Lodi Lake Nature Area is quiet, while one man sits on a bench overlooking the water.
As the boat comes around a bend past the nature area, the first expansive house is in view. This will be the view of the river's south bank for most of the trip through Lodi's city limits; home after home has large wooden decks and stairs that weave down to docks in the water.
The city's crowded south side of the river illustrates the story of public access being repeatedly superseded by private development.
Three times, city leaders have declined to provide access or revoked access in subdivisions — despite a state law requiring access in these developments.
Currently, the only public access the city provides is a boat launch and a kayak and canoe launch at Lodi Lake.
But with the south side of Lodi filled with the developments, the question is: Where can access be provided now? The debate resurfaced after city staff began investigating allowing the public to launch kayaks from a city-owned property at the end of Awani Drive in Mokelumne Village.
Advocates say city leaders have long promised access there, and that the site may be the last, best hope. Jay Bell, a river advocate and avid kayaker, pointed out that between Lodi Lake and Highway 99, there is no place where people can legally put their toe in the water.
"Systematically, all of the land got sold off. ... It should be considered a real valuable public resource, but so few people are aware of what a resource it is," Bell said.
But homeowners are worried the Awani site could attract more traffic, noise and troublemakers, said Joan Morrison, a Mokelumne Village resident. While she has no problem with kayakers launching from the area, once you open up the 3.7 acres, she said, it will attract a wide variety of people.
"Theoretically, it would be a great place to access the river if people followed the rules, and didn't drink and do drugs and drive loud cars and park in front of homes. It's a societal issue, not just river access," Morrison said.
How did we get here?
There have been three subdivisions built since 1975 along the Mokelumne that were supposed to include access to the river because of the Subdivision Map Act.
"No local agency shall approve either a tentative or final map of any proposed subdivision to be fronted upon a public waterway, river or stream which does not provide, or have available, reasonable public access by fee or easement from a public highway to that portion of the bank of the river or stream bordering or lying within the proposed subdivision," according to the act.
The state law suggests that cities consider providing access through a highway, foot trail, bike trail, horse trail or other means of travel.
In 1976, Rivergate was the first subdivision to be built after the act was passed. Public access was originally included through a small boat launch in the back of one of the lagoons.
But in 1980, the city gave back the easement for the access point after neighbors complained that no one was using it. Now, it is fenced off.
Bell said people probably did not know about the launch, and during the last couple of years, the kayak and canoe community has grown. He wishes the city had set aside more space in the Rivergate area for a park.
"For all the shoreline that the project encompasses, to allocate only a concrete slab is ridiculous," Bell said.
Mokelumne Village was the next development approved in 1978, but no access was specifically included in the maps, according to an analysis written in 1991 by then-City Attorney Bob McNatt. McNatt wrote the staff report for the Lodi City Council to inform them about the history of access.
The Lodi Planning Commission approved the 57-acre project with a variety of conditions, including the following: "... that public access to the Mokelumne River as required in the State Resources Code be provided to the approval of the Public Works Director."
McNatt wrote that the city's scenic overlook at the end of Awani Drive was likely viewed as adequate access because it is next to the Mokelumne Village project.
And it seems like providing access there was the plan. In 1978, the city sent a letter to the San Joaquin Local Health District, saying that it is no longer using the former dump site to dispose of debris. The letter said the plan for the site was for it to be "regraded and used as public access to the Mokelumne River."
The city also hired Symbex Corporation of Stockton to remove all the leaves at the dumpsite. But the project never moved past that stage.
Even during the discussions in the 1970s, the issue was not new, said former mayor and councilwoman Evie Olson.
When her father was on the council in the 1950s, Olson remembers him talking about the need for river access.
"Somehow we should correct what has been done, but we can't go back and undo it," she said. "I don't think anyone thought about this when the decisions were made, because there was still access to the river."
The city ended up selling the property in the early 1980s. The idea was for a developer to build homes there, but when they found contamination on the property, the developer sold it back to the city in the late '80s.
In 1994, the Lodi Planning Commission considered the River Pointe project, just west of Mokelumne River. The developer, River Pointe Partners, did not want to open any of its land along the river for public access because they were concerned the public would destroy it.
The developers pointed to the city's scenic overlook off Awani Drive as the state-required access for their project. Former mayor and councilwoman Susan Hitchcock was on the Planning Commission during the decision to build River Pointe. She remembers that neighbors opposed opening up the Awani Drive location because of pollution in the soil.
At the time, Hitchcock said she would like to see the city develop the scenic overlook, but concerns with contamination might prevent it from opening.
Despite background showing the city's property on Awani was to be a public access point, that never was made clear to the homeowners, said Morrison, who has lived in Mokelumne Village since 1986.
Many people who live in the subdivision would not have purchased houses there if they knew it would be public, she said.
"If you live in a nice quiet community, you buy there because it is a nice quiet community. It would be very disturbing to a lot of us if it was public access," Morrison said.
But for some local residents, the city's failure to provide access has gone far enough. Kathy Grant, who works as the docent coordinator at Lodi Lake, said the lack of access to the river for Eastside residents harms kids and robs them of connecting with nature.
"It used to be that kids played in that river before the subdivisions were built that kept them out. It makes for a healthy connection to where you live," Grant said.
She took a group of Heritage School students to Lodi Lake, and many said they did not even know there is a river in town.
"It's happened over the last 40 years. There are several generations that have no contact with the river," Grant said.
Where do we go from here?
Some question whether more access is in fact needed.
Rivergate homeowner Carol Meehleis said she has watched the river get more and more populated in the 25 years she has lived in the area.
In the last year, she said there were 45 kayakers that her family saw on a regular basis, not including ones who just come out for one day. She said the biggest problem is the increase in jetskis, because they speed through the river and are damaging the natural habitat.
She questions opening up another access point when there is not money for the city of Lodi or the San Joaquin Sheriff's Office to patrol the waterway.
"We are full. I'm saying people are finding more and more ways to access the river. I've never felt it was restrictive," Meehleis said.
But Ashlie Arbuckle, who owns Headwaters Kayak with her husband, Dan, said there needs to be more access. During the summer, she said, it can be frustrating because there is only one main access point for the entire city.
Bell agreed that there needs to be more opportunities to enjoy the river on the east side of town. He said many of the residents who live in homes along the Mokelumne are misguided in thinking that they own the waterway.
"It's easy when you live on the river to get in the mindset that this is part of your space. It's like your street," he said.
Using the example of Rivergate, he said the general public did not even know that the access to the river was being taken away until it was gone.
"The fact is that they were unaware it was happening. The people who did know took advantage of it and profited from it," Bell said.
The city is still considering the property on Awani Drive. Representatives from San Joaquin County Environmental Health and state agency Cal Recycle recently visited the site and are planning the best way to test the soil for contamination, city spokesman Jeff Hood said.
Morrison said the neighbors are worried about graffiti, people doing drugs and drinking, and the noise. She said that 50 years ago the city might have been able to open up the area, but now it's a different society where people do not take care of things.
She also is worried how the city would pay to take care of the park after it was built.
"What happens with the ongoing cost? The city does not have the money to add more personnel," Morrison said.
The neighbors do not object if kayakers want to stop and get out on the beach.
Another possibility is another access point at Lodi Lake, Morrison said, because then the city would not need to add more staff to keep it safe.
She also suggested the city look further upstream for a place to provide access.
"Maybe there's a place that wouldn't be in the middle of an established community, on the other side of Highway 99," she said.
While they will keep monitoring the issue, Morrison does not expect the public access to come to fruition, solely because of cost.
"To clean up the site and put in a park would become so cost-prohibitive that it will probably not be developed," she said.
Grant said she would like to see the city property open for the public, but it could possibly take an outside environmental organization to force a change. She pointed to the opposition at community forum about the possible kayak and canoe launch in August as a hurdle to getting access.
"Those people who you saw who were the loudest at the meeting run the city. They are the business owners, bankers and lawyers. ... Most people who lost the right to the river aren't wealthy enough to fight it," she said.
Arbuckle still holds out hope for that site. By having a kayak and canoe launch only, it could ease tensions between jetskiers and paddlers, she said. The slower-moving boats could go up river as opposed to launching from the same area as the jetskis at Lodi Lake.
"It's a beautiful section of the river. It gets quiet. We can put in there and go up river where it becomes a little less developed and a little more seclusive," she said.
The city could design the access similar to launches in Sacramento on the American River, where people drive into established neighborhoods and get out on the river.
"It would be an ideal situation for that empty lot. Right now, it's just such a waste. It would clean up the neighborhood because right now, it's an overgrown field with a chain link fence where kids and people who aren't supposed to be in there go anyway," she said.