A proposed trail in south Fullerton along an abandoned railroad right-of-way became the focus of heated discussion and raised questions of conflicts of interest during the November 2 Council meeting. Back in May, City Council accepted a $1.78 million grant from the California Natural Resources Agency Urban Greening Program to construct Phase II of a trail from Highland Avenue to Independence Park along an abandoned Union Pacific (UP) right-of-way.
According to a staff report, “The project intends to transform an existing 50- to 80-foot-wide blighted corridor into a greenbelt trail that provides alternate transportation linking the Transportation Center and several parks, including Independence Park at its terminus.”
At the request of Councilmember Fred Jung, Council voted 4-1 (Zahra “no”) on November 2 to seek alternate proposals for this corridor. Council voted to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) inviting interested parties to submit their ideas and plans. Councilmember Jesus Silva, who supported the RFP, added that whatever proposals are made must include a trail.
Councilmember Ahmad Zahra expressed concern that the RFP would jeopardize the Union Pacific (UP) Trail, which has already secured funding and a project design.
When asked for clarification on this, Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation Alice Loya told The Observer that the RFP would “not necessarily” jeopardize the grant funding. “The grant award was for a trail with urban greening. The RFP proposals could be in line with the requirements of the funding,” Loya said.
During public comment, Dr. Jessie Jones, director of the Center for Healthy Neighborhoods at nearby Richman Park, spoke in favor of the trail as currently proposed.
“Part of being healthy in a neighborhood is having trails and parks,” Jones said. “The community has spoken. The community wants this trail and needs the trail.”
“This is in the most disadvantaged part of town,” Zahra said. “This is a need for an area that is very poor in trails and open space.”
Many residents of the neighborhood spoke in favor of the current trail proposal, and against the RFP, believing that it could diminish or jeopardize the project.
“This is going to bring 166 new trees,” Egleth Nunnci said. “We have the money, we have the staff, we have the plan. Let’s make this a reality. Otherwise, letters are going to go directly to Sacramento.”
“Give us green areas, better health for everybody, and above all we need to fight against climate change. It’s already here,” Veronica Moran said.
“Please take into account the voice of the residents, those of us who need these areas,” Alma Vilches said.
“I am a resident of the south part of Fullerton,” Pilar Maldonado said. “In the south of Fullerton, we do not have a trail which is safe to be able to walk and do exercise. Most of us live in apartment complexes without a space to be able to do physical activity…Please approve construction of the Union Pacific Trail, to be able to improve the health of our community.”
Councilmember Silva said that the vast majority of trails are north of Chapman, and that the UP trail would bring some equity for south Fullerton.
Zahra pointed out that Tony Bushala, who was the only member of the public to speak in favor of the RFP, is a political campaign donor and major property owner in that area who has expressed interest in developing this area. Bushala owns approximately 30% of the properties along this portion of the Union Pacific right-of-way and has proposed his own plan called the Fullerton Rail District for the area. The City later conceived its own development plan, using the term Rail District, as well.
Dr. Jones also said, “The optics of voting for this land when a major donor to some of you wants to buy this land…Come on. This is a serious conflict of interest.”
Bushala called into the meeting during public comment and spoke via Zoom. He suggested making the area “a multi-modal right-of-way, which would be available for pedestrians, for vehicles, for bicycles.” This was essentially what Council ultimately voted to seek proposals for.
When asked if he was using political spending and influence to benefit financially in this area, Bushala told The Observer, “I support people who will listen to new ideas from outside City Hall. If those ideas come from me, I expect people that I have supported will be amenable to listening.”
When asked what he would like to see happen in that area, Bushala said, “The proposed RFP should be for the entire 35 acres surrounding the UP right-of-way, an area that includes lots of unproductive and frankly, blighted uses…hopefully with the flexibility afforded by a mixed-use zone overlay on the current Industrial Zone.” He called the Trail as currently proposed by staff, “a huge waste of money with no understanding…of downstream issues like security and maintenance.”
The Observer reached out to Councilmember Jung to comment on allegations that his idea to seek alternate proposals for the UP right-of-way were influenced by Bushala.
“Absolutely not,” Jung said. “I seconded Councilmember Silva’s motion to receive options that include a trail for the UP Right-of-Way because both the Council and the public should have as many choices as possible to deliberate over.”
Bushala is also Councilmember Jung’s appointee to the Union Pacific Park Ad Hoc Committee, which will be providing direction to Council on future uses of the long-closed park, which is near the proposed trail.
When asked if he felt this was a conflict of interest, Bushala said, “I don’t have a conflict of interest. I have a congruence of interest.”
Jung said, “I fully expect any and all Commissioners to complete the required disclosure forms necessary and recuse themselves from items where there is a conflict of interest.”
According to campaign disclosure forms, in the 2020 election, Bushala donated $3,000 to Mayor Pro Tem Nick Dunlap. His political action committee (Fullerton Taxpayers for Reform) spent several thousand dollars on mailings and signs attacking the opponents of now-Mayor Bruce Whitaker and Councilmember Fred Jung, presumably helping the Mayor and Councilmember get elected.
The Observer has submitted a public records request for conflict of interest forms regarding the UP Park committee, and is waiting on their release from the City.
Mayor Pro Tem Dunlap said he wants to look at ideas for the UP Park area and trail as a whole.
“Reality is, there are three large city driven initiatives taking place in the neighborhood focused on parks, housing and trails,” Dunlap told The Observer. “My belief is that these initiatives should be complimentary/integrated and not piecemeal as has become the norm for Fullerton over the years. The City has one shot to do it good and to do it right. What if the existing neighborhood was actually enhanced by a park, trails, new retail and housing as opposed to just adding a trail? We don’t know and won’t know until we see all options.”
Mayor Whitaker, who supported the RFP for a “multi-modal” right-of-way, said, “I see potential for it to be a trail with other options… I am concerned that if this is merely a trail, it can become an attractive nuisance…I see it as being essential that we have some amount of commercial development maybe intermittently along this trail to make sure we have eyes on the trail and to make sure it doesn’t become an unsafe area.”
After the meeting, Councilmember Zahra he told The Observer, “The final compromise deal was nothing but an example of how disadvantaged communities get trampled on. It appeared on the surface to keep a trail ‘element’ in the RFP, but that means ‘options’ with less than a full width trail. So, does the open space deficient south side—that is predominantly Latino and low income—not deserve a full greenway trail? Why do our most vulnerable neighborhoods suddenly have to compromise an already State funded and planned open space project and to whose benefit? This is the definition of environmental injustice. The community will be watching how this sham of a process turns out and who ultimately benefits.”
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