Saturday, February 20, 2010

Public Beaches and Private Paths

In 1967, a landmark piece of legislation was enacted in Oregon. It established public ownership of 362 miles of oceanfront beach, from the low tide mark up 16 vertical feet. In essence, if it's sand along the ocean front in Oregon, it's public property, from the California state line to the mouth of the mighty Columbia.

Developers, of course, said the bill was a threat to private property rights. But strangely and uniquely, the interest of the commoners prevailed and Governor Tom McCall signed the bill he supported into law on July 6 of that year.

Contrast the Oregon coast with, say, Malibu. Theoretically, all beaches below the high tide mark are public property, even in California. But private security guards, gates and fences, and deceptive signage keep those beaches off-limits except to the Beautiful People who reside there. (In practice, it reminds me of "public lands" in Idaho, that have been allotted for grazing or other special interests.)

Drive 450 miles or so inland from that magnificent and public Oregon coast, and you just might arrive in Boise, Idaho. And in Boise, you just might happen to stumble upon the Greenbelt, frequently described as one of our "crown jewels."

According to the Boise Convention and Visitor's Bureau, "The Greenbelt concept was originated by Boise civic and political leaders to protect the quality of and assure public access to the Boise River. Designed as a linear park for leisure and recreational use, the Greenbelt is enjoyed by Boiseans and the city's visitors of all ages. ... The Greenbelt accommodates walkers, bikers, skaters, joggers, runners, wildlife observers and fishermen."

A bit of history:

Way back in 1963, a consultant accused Boise city fathers of ignoring their most important asset - the river.

Parks Board member Alice Dieter said, "You could hardly get to the river in Julia Davis and Municipal parks. It was all wild and brambly. Trucks were dumping cement into it. The zoo was hosing its cages into it. The river wasn't something people gave much attention to or even thought about very much."

Bill Onweiler, a Boise city councilman, was trying to figure out how to prevent building in the floodplain. He says, "We were discussing it when [Parks Director] Gordon [Bowen] came by and, with a twinkle in his eye, said, 'We could make it parks.' The Greenbelt was born at that moment."

There wasn't a strong public sentiment at first, but the enthusiasm of Onweiler and Bowen eventually took hold, and by 10 years later, the interest of Boise's commoners had prevailed. Years later, nobody could deny that the Greenbelt is a fantastic public facility.

Except perhaps for a few, ahem, "civic leaders" in Boise's red-headed stepchild bedroom community, Garden City.

Mayor John Evans and his toadies declared a section of "their" greenbelt off-limits to bicyclists, complete with signage and misdemeanor-speak in the City Code.

Their allegiance is obviously to the few citizens who live directly along that section of the path, at the expense of the balance of the commumity. Their mindset is obviously more "Malibu Beach" than "Oregon Coast"! (Coincidentally(?), Mayor Evans was the developer of Riverside Village, the subdivision that is "protected" from the Subversive Bike-rider Element.)

Since then, more signs have appeared along the Garden City stretch of Greenbelt. Signs declaring that it's closed if the sun is down. Signs declaring that you better not stray off the path.

Might Treasure Valley's Greenbelt someday be "the people's," in the same sense that the Oregon coast is "the people's"?

One would hope.

- Steve Hulme (aka "bikeboy," aka "The Bike Nazi," Feb. 2010)


Click on photos for larger views. (The "Bicycle Dismount Zone" photos are from the Idaho COG website; the author snapped the others.)

I do not harbor a naïve viewpoint that citizens have unrestricted and unregulated access to the Oregon Coast. It is heavily regulated - where motor vehicles may and may not operate, where camping is and isn't allowed, where there are seasonal wildlife closures, etc. Nor do I want to infer that Garden City is unique in arbitrarily closing a section of the Greenbelt to cyclists. There is a section in Boise's "River Run" area that is equally perplexing. (The closure is ostensibly to protect fragile wildlife areas. But one must ask, "Why are cyclists so disruptive, while pedestrians, dogs, and backyard lawnmowers and garden parties don't bother the wildlife?") However, I feel my characterization of Garden City's "Malibu Beach" attitude is entirely accurate, and despite my conservative tendencies, I believe a contiguous and uninterrupted Greenbelt is feasible and worth the effort to fight for.

More Reading:

Idaho Statesman articles:
Walking the Greenbelt? Think of Gordon Bowen (12/11/97)
The potential of a 'green belt' brings out volunteer spirit (9/28/99)
Among the challenges: buying land and getting easements (9/28/99)
Love the Greenbelt? Thank Bill Onweiler (2/16/10)

Idaho Citizens for an Open Greenbelt (Idaho COG) - information about Garden City's co-opting of the Greenbelt (a treasure-trove of information and documents about the Greenbelt)


Gary said...

Excellent comments Steve. Onweiler was prophetic in his vision of the Boise River Greenbelt. What the citizens of the Treasure Valley understand is that the Greenbelt belongs to us (the public) not Garden City or any jurisdiction that manages this property. The vast majority of the people who are aware Garden City's restrictions on the Boise River Greenbelt are either dumbfounded by the audacity of Garden City or outright angry.

You referred to another section of the Greenbelt that is restricted. There is a major distinction between the two areas. The restricted section in the southeast section of Boise was private land donated to Boise with the restrictions for use. The section in Garden City was PUBLIC LAND owned by the State and required the developer and Garden City to develop it as a "bike path".

Bikeboy said...

Your clarification is interesting, Gary. So, the Riverside Village property is, and has always been PUBLIC property (although conveyed from the state to Garden City a number of years ago, with stipulations.) And the "River Run" property is private, with an easement granted for the Greenbelt.

I understand the distinction. But I think Boise's River Run people are silly if they're patting themselves on the back for their noble wildlife-conservation efforts. (By blocking bikes, while allowing any manner of foot traffic and the domestic goings-on of the residents.)