FAIRFIELD — Suisun Valley is a popular spot for bicyclists who like to travel along its narrow, rural roads past vineyards, wheat fields and corn fields.
It’s just that some sections of these roads have virtually no shoulders, making them a tight squeeze for cyclists when cars pass. Esther Pryor of Rockville Bike in the valley cited the stretch of Suisun Valley Road between Rockville Corner and Larry’s Produce stand as an example.
“It’s dangerous,” Pryor said. “On weekends, a lot of people won’t ride it because of the boat traffic.”
There’s a new, regional source of money that someday might help widen the roads of Suisun Valley just a little, to make more room for cyclists. That same source could help preserve open space and farmland in other parts of Solano County and improve public access to them.
Suisun Valley, along with such places as the Green Valley hills and Fairfield-Vacaville greenbelt, is among the county’s “priority conservation areas” under a program by the Association of Bay Area Governments and Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
The controversial, recently passed Plan Bay Area has already made “priority development areas” a common term in the regional planning lexicon. The program calls for funneling 80 percent of the growth in the nine-county Bay Area through 2040 into these designated areas. The areas would have higher-density development near mass transit hubs, a break with the car-dependent, suburban development patterns of recent decades.
But Plan Bay Area claims to be about more than development. It also claims to be about conservation and improving transportation in open space areas so people can enjoy them.
Communities within the nine Bay Area counties have designated about 200 priority development areas. They have also designated more than 100 priority conservation areas. The two complement each other, according to Plan Bay Area.
“As a result of this focused growth, about 99 percent of our open space and agricultural land can be retained and North Bay counties take a very small share of growth,” according to Plan Bay Area.
Particularly in the North Bay – Solano, Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties – open spaces are central to the character and economies of many communities, Plan Bay Area said.
Whether all of this is good planning or a heavy-handed, regional attempt to impose an unworkable growth model on the Bay Area remains to be seen. But Plan Bay Area makes money available to communities to entice them to carry out its vision.
There is $10 million available for priority conservation areas. The North Bay counties, including Solano County, are each to get $1.25 million.
Money can be used in priority conservation areas for such things as constructing turnouts, overlooks, viewing areas and bike and walking trails, planning public access to open space and parklands, and preserving open space and farmland.
Solano County and its cities have six priority conservation areas. Here is a look at them:
Suisun Valley was declared by the county as a conservation area only this year, a designation awaiting Association of Bay Area Governments approval. It may become the first of the county’s priority conservation areas to get a regional grant.
Solano County wants to make Suisun Valley a draw for tourists who will visit its wineries and produce stands and enjoy its scenery. The county has come up with a list of proposed Suisun Valley improvements.
Mankas Corner is to get particular attention. This is a small, commercial outpost with the Mankas Steakhouse and a scattering of other businesses. It has grown more popular in recent years.
“We’re very focused on that because of all the economic activity that’s going on right now,” county Engineering Manager Matt Tuggle said.
The county wants to improve auto parking and bike parking at Mankas Corner and build crosswalks. But Tuggle said it will first meet with landowners.
“We’re not out there 24-7, like they live and work out there,” he said.
In addition, Rockville, Suisun Valley, Mankas Corner, Abernathy and Ledgewood roads are to get wider shoulders in sections where shoulders are virtually nonexistent. This would make it easier for cyclists to enjoy the valley.
“I think they have to (do this),” Pryor said from her vantage point at her Rockville Corner bike shop. “It’s just so darn popular now, they can’t ignore it any longer.”
The county and Solano Transportation Authority have agreed that the valley should get $1.175 million of the $1.25 million available to Solano County in that first grant cycle. The remainder would go to create a priority conservation area assessment plan.
These oak-covered, coastal range hills are between Green Valley and Jameson Canyon and extend north to Lake Madigan and Lake Frey, which are part of the historic Vallejo reservoir system.
Local environmentalists have long wanted to preserve the area and make part of it open to the public. Former Assemblyman Tom Hannigan in 1989 introduced a bill to get the Vallejo Lakes declared as a state park, but the effort failed. Better that the county try to make it a regional park, the state decided.
Napa County environmentalists in 2000 proposed taking the Vallejo Lakes area and Skyline Park in Napa County and creating a Green Valley Fault State Park. This idea, too, went nowhere.
Vallejo continues to own Lake Madigan, Lake Frey and the surrounding watershed, which is off-limits to the public. The water system no longer brings reservoir water to Vallejo, but still serves the rural Green Valley, Suisun Valley and Cordelia areas.
High water prices prompted the Green Valley Landowners Association in 2009 to explore whether local water customers could form a district that could buy the reservoirs and water system. Vallejo was willing to enter into talks, but matters stalled.
“If you don’t have a willing seller, you don’t have a deal,” said Bill Mayben of the Green Valley Landowners Association.
Nor have efforts to have a trail put through the Vallejo Lakes area for public access been successful, he said.
The Solano Land Trust in 2009 looked at buying 1,100 acres of the Vallejo Lakes watershed, a section that doesn’t include the two lakes, Green Valley falls or water delivery system. The Land Trust would have allowed part of the Bay Ridge Trail to pass through there so people could see the oaks, meadows and scenic vistas.
Land Trust Executive Director Nicole Byrd said recently that the idea isn’t dead, though nothing is happening at the moment. The Land Trust is focused on opening up to the public the nearby Rockville Trails land that it owns, she said.
So the Western Hills and Vallejo Lakes area remains free of development, though not open to hiking.
Fairfield and Vacaville decided in 1993 and 1994 that their boundaries should never touch.
But, while they created a greenbelt about a mile wide, most of the land remained privately owned. The greenbelt exists in large part because the cities agreed to avoid annexing it for development.
Designation as a priority conservation area could make money available to help preserve land there, through such methods as buying development rights from willing sellers while still allowing land to remain in private hands.
“One of the challenges of our greenbelt is it’s owned by dozens and dozens of landowners,” Fairfield Senior Planner Dave Feinstein said.
Meanwhile, Fairfield is taking actions of its own in the greenbelt. It recently reconfigured part of the greenbelt for its planned train station community, shrinking the greenbelt width in the Peabody Road area but adding land in other areas.
In May, the City Council updated its northeast development fees for the undeveloped area east of Clay Bank Road. Developers building homes there will pay a variety of fees, such as for roads, sewers – and the greenbelt.
Fairfield, Vallejo and Benicia in 1994 decided they would leave a large portion of the hills between their borders free of development.
They formed what is now called the Tri-City and County Cooperative Planning Area. These brushy hills have views stretching from Suisun Marsh and the Central Valley in one direction and from Vallejo to the bays and beyond in the other.
To some extent, the public can hike these hills. The Solano Land Trust owns 1,039-acre Lynch Canyon and the county operates it as a park on weekends. The Land Trust also owns the 3,956-acre King-Swett ranches and allows docent-led hikes there.
Other land remains in private hands. The 2,000-acre, former Lopes Ranch is owned by the city of Santa Clara, which has long looked at the land as a possible site for energy-generating wind turbines.
Conservation in the Tri-City area would protect land that includes regional vista points, farmland, watershed, grazing and habitat for rare species, an Association of Bay Area Governments report said.
These hills in the Vaca mountain range are a rugged watershed covered with brush and oaks. Some land in this area is owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management and open to the public, but not all.
Conserving land on the Blue Ridge would limit habitat fragmentation and protect farming done there. It would also provide recreation activities, an Association of Bay Area Governments report said.
These uncompleted trails are listed as a priority conservation area in all Bay Area counties. One is to ring the Bay Area’s hillsides, the other its bays.
Segments of both trails exist in Solano County. For example, one can hike the Bay Area Ridge Trail in Rockville Park and the Bay Trail along the Carquinez Strait in Vallejo. The challenge is making the trails continuous throughout the Bay Area.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.