At the June 21 Hanford City Council meeting Hanford Environmental Action Team (HEAT) lost their appeal to protect a remnant of Mussel Slough. The council voted 5 -0 to deny HEAT’s appeal of the Bajun American Properties’ site plan review for a multi-family apartment complex. The proposed project will be built on Centennial Drive and the future Millennium Way.
The project site is located on 13.11 acres and includes two-storey buildings, 216 apartments, a recreation building and pool. There are seven open play areas throughout the development. The units include three-bedroom, two-bath units; two-bedroom, two-bath units and one-bedroom one -bath units. Each unit will have a single garage and a parking space, with the exception of the one bedroom units, which will each have a single garage.
The Community Development Department that signed off on the site plan review came to the conclusion that the apartment building would not have an adverse impact on the environment and prepared a negative declaration even though the parcel is almost completely surrounded by farmland. The appeal submitted by Richard Harriman, HEAT’s lawyer, alleges that a focused EIR must be done before the complex is built, especially in light of the fact that it was never resolved by whom, or why, a Mussel Slough remnant was filled in adjacent to the property.
Harriman also states in the appeal that storm water calculations should also be required as conditions of approval, and not be deferred mitigation. The city staff’s response to this allegation is that the 800 or so people living in the complex will have no impact on the city’s storm drainage facilities. Harriman claims that Hanford’s 2002 General plan is too outdated to use to approve large developments with simply an administrative review. The city staff claims that their General Plan has not been ruled legally inadequate.
Robin Mattos, a member of HEAT, stated during the public hearing that Mussel Slough is a natural resource the city should honor. Mussel Slough is a temporary waterway off of the Kings River that fills in wet years. It is also an invaluable recharge channel for a city that has no other source of water except for what comes from the ground.
From an aerial photo shown during the power point presentation, there is a clear walking path that runs directly along the south and western boundary of the proposed complex. A portion of Mussel Slough follows the walking path and also borders the proposed apartments to the south west. Mattos presented a petition to the city council that held nine signatures of current walkway users which, according to Harriman, would qualify as a prescriptive easement.
The petition submitted by Mattos said, “We, the undersigned users of the existing unpaved pathway and trail located on the real property of the Applicant, Bajun American Properties, L.P., for the past eight (8) years, hereby exercise our rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States and article 1, sections 3 and 7(a) of the Constitution of the State of California, to petition our elected representatives.”
The petition says that they have used the existing unpaved pathway to walk, ride bikes, or use other vehicles for access to shopping and dining. Mattos said that the path is a needed alternative to walking on busy 12th Avenue, and that many people walk along the existing waterway from 13th Avenue to Armona and then to the commercial area and to the hospital.
Mattos acknowledged that the developer will be putting money back into the community, but suggested it should not just be for the residents of the apartment complex but for everyone. According to Mattos, creating a walking path next to the complex and preserving the slough is something that all of Hanford can enjoy. She said that paths should be part of a community connecting people where they live to where they shop and work.
What the community does not need, says HEAT, is one more remnant of Mussel Slough made into a drainage ditch surrounded by a chain link fence like the unsightly hole behind Walmart.
Tom Lang, a resident of Fancher Creek in Fresno, reiterated Mattos sentiments. He said that Fresno had the foresight to put a trail along the creek even though a good part of the year it did not have water. “It became a beautiful part of the development,” he said. “It wasn’t mandated, it was a discretionary decision on the city council’s part.”
“We have enough cement,” said Lang. “A 15-foot easement would be enough to make a trail.”
Craig Brian, of Visalia, has worked for the Audubon Society for 20 years and said that these pockets of urban open spaces are wonderful for bird watching and that egret and herons love Mussel Slough.
Richard Harriman, HEAT’s lawyer, stated that neither he nor HEAT is against the project, but reiterated that while the apartments will not be built on top of the slough, the development owns the property under the slough, which is a public trust. Because there is an actively used path along the slough, Harriman said that there exists a prescriptive easement.
HEAT’s position is that, as a condition of approval of the site permit, a 15-foot easement on the south side of the boundary should be created along Mussel Slough.
Jeff Reed, attorney for the developer, asked that the appeal be denied and stated that there is no evidence submitted to the council that the proposed project is located on Mussel Slough. He also stated that there is no evidence of a trail and anyone who signed the petition are trespassers who are breaking the law.
The City of Hanford’s lawyer, Ty Mizote, said that “prescriptive easement” was just a fancy term for a group of people using someone else’s land.
The appeal has now been denied by both the Hanford Planning Commission and the City Council. Harriman and his clients have not decided on their next step and will be discussing their options over the next few weeks.