By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For generations, there’s been a temporary summer bridge installed across the Russian River near Asti, south of Cloverdale, and for many of those years residents and emergency responders have wanted to extend its season.
The crossing makes it easier to access the east side of the river, but the bridge is removed for the winter when waters rise.
Typically it’s in place by May 15 or June 15, then removed in early November when fire season is over.
When it’s taken out, there is only the bridge in Cloverdale to rely upon, about five miles to the north. It’s a much more inconvenient route that forces residents in the Palomino Lakes subdivision and along south River Road to drive to Cloverdale and double back.
“This has been an issue for decades,” said North County Supervisor Mike McGuire. “We’ve received numerous inquiries from residents that live in that part of River Road, on the east side of the bridge, about the potential for extending the season at the summer crossing.”
There has been a temporary bridge at Asti since 1938 and, according to county officials, there probably was an even older one in the vicinity that washed out before then.
But now, there are increasing regulations in place to protect endangered and threatened salmon species that tend to delay when the bridge goes in.
A number of permits are required from state and federal agencies just to install the temporary bridge and to bulldoze the gravel road leading to its approach.
There is strict monitoring of water levels and any gravel bed disturbance to avoid harassing the fish.
Extending the bridge and elevating it could bring it out of the high water mark, no longer subject to regulatory restrictions, county officials said.
McGuire said the topic is getting more intense study than ever. But the county’s precarious financial condition and the drying up of government grants for such projects makes a solution tricky.
Instead, residents who use the bridge are getting a chance to decide whether to tax themselves to pay for a new, higher bridge that could be in place longer and potentially year-round.
But the $3 million price is daunting when split among the 250 surrounding properties that potentially would be part of the assessment district.
Even those in favor of a more permanent span concede it could be tough convincing the required two-thirds of voters to approve it.
“The main thing for me is the safety aspect,” said Andrew Grose, who is in favor of a more permanent bridge. “To have more than one way out in case of fire is very important.”
Grose, a retired chief financial officer for the Public Policy Institute of California, moved to the Palomino Lakes area five years ago.
“It’s a fire danger area,” he said. “With the bridge, the Geyserville Fire Department can get here faster than Cloverdale can.”
He agrees the estimated $1,100 annual assessment per residential parcel for 20 years is “a pretty steep price tag,” but “I don’t think anyone thought it would be easy or cheap.”
At a community meeting on the topic late last year attended by about 80 people, McGuire asked for a show of hands to see how many wanted to pursue the possibility of extending the season of the summer crossing. Most were in favor.
As a result, a residents’ subcommittee was formed to work with county officials to analyze the possibilities.
Earlier this month, informal election ballots went out to residents of about 220 parcels and owners of 30 commercial properties to determine the level of support. They are due back this week, postmarked by Thursday.
If two-thirds of the ballots are in favor of the proposal, it would advance to a formal election, requiring the same threshold of approval, McGuire said.
“This is democracy at work. This decision is in the hand of neighbors,” said McGuire, who takes a neutral stance on the issue.
But there are skeptics who have raised plenty of doubts.
“I’m against the idea the way it’s set up,” said Julie Dilley, a River Road resident who said private property owners will pay disproportionately for a new bridge, which would remain single lane. And there still would be no guarantee it would stay in place year round, if the river rises more than usual.
“It’s putting the onus on 250 property owners,” she said when many others use the bridge, including hundreds of recreational vehicles to and from the KOA campground.
“The few are really paying for everybody to use it. It just does not seem equitable,” she said.
Advocates for a year-round crossing say residents wouldn’t have to drive 20 minutes out of their way every time, and the dollar savings in gasoline would be significant — $7.15 a round trip.
But opponents say that is based on the 55-cent-a mile IRS deductible rate and not a more realistic 20-cent-a-mile driving cost cited by AAA.
While commuters may prefer having a year-round link across the river, Dilley, a retired clothing industry executive, said she doesn’t have a problems with a longer drive along 30-mph scenic River Road.
But Cloverdale Fire Chief Jason Jenkins said the Asti bridge “definitely enhances our ability to provide protection to a large populated area.”
He said it can take 12 to 15 minutes longer for an ambulance or neighboring fire departments to respond to an emergency.
“We’ve had a fire on River Road where mutual aid from Healdsburg or Geyserville has to go all the way around” through Cloverdale, he said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or email@example.com.)