Many communities in the Central Valley struggle to provide enough green space and parks. In Hanford, residents have tried to figure out what to do with an 18-acre patch of dirt next to a popular city park. A vote by the city council tonight could begin the process of making a final decision about its future. Valley Public Radio’s Jeffrey Hess reports the scrap of land is the source of a surprising amount of controversy.
At Hidden Valley Park in Hanford, families, children, dogs and ducks enjoy a picture perfect afternoon.
Residents and city leaders say they are proud of the rolling green landscape and large shady trees.
However, immediately adjacent to the park is another 18 acres of city-owned land that has long been nothing more than weeds and dirt.
Now, the city is considering selling that land to developers rather than expanding the park as some residents had hoped.
Ashley Brakins pushes her 20-month old daughter Harlem in a swing.
“The first time that I came here with her she was still pretty little and so we couldn’t really do much. I was just trying to keep stuff out of her mouth. So, I am hoping now that she is getting older, we will come more often because she will enjoy it,” Brakins says.
She says she loves the park and would not want the city to sell land that could someday be used to expand it.
“I think they should leave it a natural public space. Unless they are going to do something that will benefit the community more. But I don’t know what they can don’t see what will benefit more than have a public park for everyone to come and use,” Brakins says.
And she is not alone. Some community groups have begun to rally to push back against the city’s attempts to re-zone and sell the land.
Tonight, the Hanford City Council is expected to vote on a proposal to re-zone the land to light residential for potential new homes.
Currently, no specific developer has come forward, but supporters of the re-zone think the land could fetch more than a million and a half dollars.
That would be a big mistake says Hanford resident Nate Odom.
“We have got an opportunity here because of what the space represents. The fact that it was intended as more park space. And because our grandparents in the 60’s were thinking of the future. They envisioned a 40-acre park because they know populations grown,” Odom says.
Odom works with Heart of Hanford, a downtown revitalization nonprofit and is leading the last ditch effort to halt the potential sale of the land, which has been fought over for decades.
He understands that previous efforts only focused on saying ‘no’ to sales, but now he says they have a vision for land. They want to see it transformed from a dirt lot into a self-sustaining urban wilderness bringing much needed shade and trees to the scorching Central Valley.
“In our general plan in Hanford, it calls for 2 acres of park land for every 1,000 residents. Fresno is 3 acres per 1,000. Tulare 4. And Visalia is 5.1. We are really on the low end here,” Odom says.
Odom does not have an estimate on how much it would cost to develop. Although in Fresno, city leaders say it cost about a half a million dollars to develop an acre of park space. So, if those numbers hold, developing this land could cost $9 million.
But City Council Member Justin Mendes says it’s time to ‘let this one go’.
“To get rid of some problems we have to make tough decision. And I know it is borderline sacred ground to some people, that 18 acres. But to meet the needs of the community, we have to look at all options,” Mendes says.
Mendes is one of the main proponents of selling the land. He says for too long the plot has sat an expensive eyesore.
He says allowing the land to be developed would make Hidden Valley even more popular as families move into homes adjacent to the park.
With the money, he says they could add new amenities like an indoor recreation center near downtown or parks in other parts of town.
“The funds from that sale would definitely be a huge shot in the arm for a recreation facility downtown. And also meet the additional need of bringing foot traffic downtown. That is kind of a two birds with one stone option,” Mendes says.
Mendes points out the plot has been a drain on city resources just to keep it from being overrun by weeds.
And even among people who frequent the park he is not alone.
Cydney Townsend is taking pictures of her niece to celebrate the child’s first birthday.
She says the park is big enough as it is and wouldn’t mind selling the remaining land, if the money goes toward something useful.
“I think they have got plenty of space here already because it is never always full all the way. It would just be empty space to the park. They have got plenty of space here,” Townsend says.
And while it is always difficult to predict which way things will go in politics, both the council member and the activist say they think it’s likely there are enough votes on the council to sell the land.
Tonight, the 40 year-old question of what to do with the land might finally have an answer.