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Neighbors are uncertain about proposed Mokelumne River access point on Awani Drive

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Posted: Saturday, August 27, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 4:41 pm, Sat Aug 27, 2011.

For decades, there have been questions about the future of a vacant, city-owned property bordered by railroad tracks, the Mokelumne River and a residential neighborhood.

The former landfill site has never been developed and currently is a pathway for kids eager to jump off the train trestle into the river, or transients needing a place to sleep for the evening.

City officials are hosting a community meeting on Tuesday to gauge public interest in applying for grant money to create an area where people can launch their kayaks and canoes.

Many of the neighbors feel the property located north of Awani Drive should remain private.

Robby Nixon, whose house borders the property, said that if the area was opened up it could attract more vagrants, lead to traffic and parking problems and create a constant headache for residents.

"If we open that gate and let people in whenever they want, they will be coming from Sacramento and Stockton, and then they will want to live here. Who's going to patrol it?" Nixon said.

But fans of kayaking and canoeing want more access to practice their sport.

Alan MacIssac, a river advocate and developer of www.mokelumneriver.com, said everyone is a steward of the river and should have access to it.

"I've spent a lot of great time on that river," he said. "It's unfortunate that it is so surrounded by private landowners, because if it wasn't, we would probably have more access to the river."

What is out there now?

As the rumble of a freight train fades in the distance, the first sign of life is the yells and shrieks of children jumping off the train trestle.

The 3.7 acres of city property is located at the corner of a subdivision and is fenced off, but there is a well-worn path along the railroad and through a field of yellow, dried grass.

Kids use it to get to the trestle, where they jump in the cool Mokelumne River water on hot summer days, and adults use it to access the river for fishing or to go to camp for the evening.

On Thursday afternoon, about eight kids used every ounce of strength to climb up the rusted metal beams to the large cylinders, where they yell jokes or instructions to each other before plunging into the river.

There is even a rope tied to the trestle that is attached to a bike handle, which some of the braver kids hold on to, swinging high above the water before letting go.

City officials and Union Pacific have tried to stop the long-standing Lodi tradition, but kids still take the leap.

Donald Beighey watches from the riverbank, cheering on the high schoolers. He knows all of their names, and says they all look out for each other to make sure everyone stays safe.

"The kids come here every day, and instead of being out and doing drugs they come and do this," he said.

Beighey has lived along the river for about a month. He lost his scrap metal recycling business about four months ago, when he said his truck was impounded after police arrested him for driving with a suspended license.

With nowhere else to turn, he headed to the spot where he camped for a couple months about 20 years ago. Down a five-foot embankment and a few feet away from the river, Beighey has his clothes in a roller suitcase, and pillows and sheets spread out over plastic to form a bed.

He stressed that the people in the camp have created rules in order to stay there. He pointed to a trash bag, and said everyone must put their trash in it; then they carry it into town and put it in a Dumpster.

He said the camp is different than one at Highway 99, where he said they constantly trash the river and are more rowdy.

Beighey realizes he is trespassing and so are the five other people who live in his camp. He said he is in favor of opening up the property for a park, even if it means the homeless have to find another place to live.

"This is our river. We can't get to it because we are trespassing. We should have access to this. All of these houses have closed the gate," he said.

Worried about the 'riff-raff'

Currently there are two public access areas in Lodi, both at Lodi Lake. There also is a private access point at Mokelumne Beach RV park.

City spokesman Jeff Hood said the city has no money to build a new launch at the Awani Drive location, but the project might qualify for a California River Parkways Grant program that provides agencies with money to acquire, restore, protect or develop river parkways.

Councilman Phil Katzakian, who lives in a neighborhood that borders the Mokelumne River, said he has not yet heard any feedback from the public, but expects the neighbors near Awani Drive won't be happy with the plan.

In the 1990s, there was a discussion about opening up the area to the public, but the idea was axed after opposition from neighbors.

Katzakian said he would like to see something done with the property, but he is not sure if another access point is needed because people can already use Lodi Lake.

When Nixon bought his home about 17 years ago, he was told they couldn't build anything on the property next door because it is a landfill site.

On Friday, he called police three times because of disturbances, including transients fighting at 6 a.m. He will call when people are jumping the fence, littering or fighting.

Having jumped off the train trestle as a teen, he usually does not usually call on kids going to enjoy the river, unless they are running around naked or "doing dope," Nixon said.

He has lived in Lodi his whole life, and remembers when the property near his house was a leaf dump and a "hobo village." He said the homeless are getting more aggressive, and he is worried that opening up the park would encourage more "riff-raff" to drive and walk through his neighborhood, Nixon said.

"If we give them a free ticket, can you imagine? Not in a nice community like this," he said.

He said it would be one thing if the property was regularly patrolled, but he has little faith in Lodi staff being able to do that because of recent budget cuts.

"Who's going to close the gate or open the gate? I just don't believe the city has the money or jobs," he said.

'The Mokelumne is accessed a lot less than other rivers'

Every Wednesday night, it is a challenge to get 40 to 50 kayakers onto the river when the Lodi Paddle Club meets, said Dan Arbuckle, owner of Headwaters Kayak Shop. It has more than 300 members total.

"I've paddled a ton of rivers throughout California, and it definitely seems that the Mokelumne is accessed a lot less than other rivers," Arbuckle said.

He used the example of the American River, where there are million-dollar homes along the beach yet paddlers drive to get to the public beaches.

"If they want to make it work, they have to find a way to police the area to make sure that the riff-raff are not coming down there and make sure there are not ongoing concerns," Arbuckle said.

He suggested the beach have a toll to keep up the level of clientele, and there would need to be security.

Members of the paddle club plan to tell the city they will do fundraising to help pay for another launch area, and hold work days on the site to keep it safe and clean, he said. By opening up another access point, Arbuckle said he thinks more people would use the river.

Yet he is not set on the Awani site.

"I think we are more excited that the city is recognizing people are using the river. Whether the site works out or not, it is important that the city wants to look at solutions," Arbuckle said.

MacIssac said the Awani location would be a good choice as long as they provide enough parking and enforcement.

"For the 20 homeowners who don't like it, there were probably 40 people who would buy a home there because there would be a river in their backyard with access," he said.

One of the unfortunate parts of the situation is that this would not be an issue if local officials in the past had done a better job of ensuring public access to the river when approving projects.

As more and more development happened on the south side, the city should have required developers to create public launch areas on the north side, he said.

"As we are looking at projects that are adjacent to the river and impact the river and the water, we should ask, 'How can we leverage it for a public opportunity?'" MacIssac said.

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodi news.com or read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/city_buzz.

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  • Kim Lee posted at 11:20 pm on Mon, Aug 29, 2011.

    Kim Lee Posts: 1798

    We know.

  • Brian Dockter posted at 10:18 am on Sun, Aug 28, 2011.

    Brian Dockter Posts: 2740

    I was never brave enough to jump off the trestle way back in the 70's.



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