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Bridge Remains Unbuilt, and Fear, Anger Run Deep

Safety: Moorpark promised quick action after a boy, 11, drowned in Arroyo Simi last winter. The project's slow pace frustrates residents.

November 04, 1996|DAVID R. BAKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOORPARK — Clouds nearly purple with rain massed overhead as Justin Culver and three friends scrambled down the banks of the Arroyo Simi.

The stream was running low, broken by sandbars and clumps of rushes. The boys hopped onto a makeshift bridge of shopping carts lying in the water and crossed the channel in just a few seconds.

Nine months earlier, 11-year-old Joel Burchfield lost his footing near this spot in the stream--which was running waist-high after a storm--and died in the surging water.

City officials had hoped to build a footbridge at the spot before this year's rainy season. But Tuesday as the season's first storm approached and no bridge was in sight, Justin and his friends thought nothing of crossing the arroyo on their way from school.

The stream crossing, just south of Liberty Bell Road, shaves at least half an hour off their walk, time that could be better spent skateboarding or hanging with friends, they said.

"I just don't come here when it's really raining," Justin, 14, said. "I just do it when it's low like this."

That attitude--the belief that crossing the stream is a safe shortcut home--terrifies parents who remember Joel's death and has fueled public pressure on city officials to build the bridge, which has been in various stages of planning for years.

It has led Joel's parents, Dan and Laura Burchfield, to attend every City Council meeting during the past month, at times filling the council chambers with friends and neighbors to keep the issue alive. Those friends have also bombarded Southern California Edison, which owns some of the land needed for the project, with well over 100 letters, asking the company to cooperate with the city.

Their pressure has produced results. After months of stalled negotiations between the city and Edison, City Council members have notified the company that they will take the land they need in court. A final vote to begin condemnation proceedings is expected Wednesday.

The council has also started advertising for bids from construction companies interested in building the 161-foot bridge. City officials hope to have bids returned by the first week of December and could pick a company midway through that month.

The flurry of activity pleases residents but doesn't satisfy them. They wonder why a project that started long before Joel's death has taken so long to complete.

"Joel's been buried since the first week in February--why are we going about this like it's business as usual?" said Rob Jacalone, whose 12-year-old son, Robbie, was a close friend to Joel. "It's beyond frustrating."

As planned, the pedestrian bridge will not be very complex. A simple, reinforced-concrete span, about 15 feet wide, will arch over the stream just east of Liberty Bell Road, the crossing spot used most often by kids from Chaparral Middle School. Six-foot-high chain-link fences will line both sides of the span, to guard against children dangling arms or legs over the water. A small parking lot will be built near the bridge's north landing.

City estimates peg the cost of construction at $390,000, with the entire project--including design and inspection work--costing $559,000.

Although council members placed greater urgency on the project after Joel's death, their efforts soon became bogged down in negotiations with Edison. To build the bridge, city officials needed access across Edison land that lines the arroyo's southern bank.

But the company has other plans for its property. Edison officials are considering building a sports facility--complete with batting cages and a golf range--on their land, which is sandwiched between the stream and Arroyo Vista Community Park.

In return for their cooperation, Edison officials wanted the city to grant them complete access to their property via the road that runs through the park. They were concerned that plans by the Ventura County Flood Control District to widen the arroyo by 40 feet would restrict their ability to bring people and cars into the future sports center.

"The city had the road there, and in order for us to develop the property, we knew we'd need better access than we have now," said Edison Regional Manager Rudy Gonzales.

City officials, however, balked at the idea of granting the company unlimited access to the park road, whose gate is locked every night. They also saw no reason to link the two issues, saying any proposed sports center would have to undergo city review separate from efforts to build the bridge.

"If it fits the zoning allowed on that property, we'll take a look at it," said Councilman John Wozniak. "If it doesn't fit, they may not get what they want. But that has nothing to do with the bridge. It's apples and oranges."

With negotiations going nowhere, the council in March commissioned an appraisal of the Edison land as a first move toward condemnation. Even that basic step took longer than anticipated, however, when the city had trouble finding a local appraiser who had never worked on any project for Edison, Wozniak said.

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