Working class residents are fighting for a trail on the south side of Fullerton – a part of town they say is in dire need of open space and one that has long been neglected by local politicians.
And $1.78 million in state grant money was supposed to help those efforts, which would’ve included at least 176 new trees planted in the area.
But a majority of Fullerton City Council members decided in August to ask a state agency again if they can repurpose the money because the trail proposal wasn’t part of what they said is a comprehensive plan.
Yet city staff publicly said state officials have previously rejected the notion of repurposing that money.
Now, Egleth Nuncci and residents – balancing time with family and work – are rolling up their sleeves in an attempt to get a patch of greenspace in a city that is facing state pressure to zone for thousands of new homes as areas in town become park deserts.
“We are fighting for our trail because that money belongs to our community. We are not going to let it go,” Nuncci said in a Wednesday phone interview.
She said some residents are planning to show up to the Orange County Supervisors’ Oct. 17 meeting to make their voices heard on the matter.
Nuncci also said the neighborhood and others like it have long been neglected by city officials.
“Everything that we have in our districts, we always have to fight for it,” Nuncci said. “How is it that the state of California gives us $1.78 million and we have to fight for them not to return it. That’s insane.”
Mayor Fred Jung, who voted against using the money for the trail in August, said in a Thursday phone interview that the money is still in Fullerton and they are waiting to hear back from the state on if they can repurpose the funds.
Along with their vote on the grant, politicians decided to reopen Union Park – where the trail would begin – after it had been closed for years because of contaminated soil and crime.
“I’m just asking folks to be logical in their thought process, not emotional – logical. Why would we not open the park and then do a trail?” Jung said. “We have grant money from the state. Can we not allocate that and open the park and do something comprehensive for that neighborhood and do something incredible for it.”
City Councilman Ahmad Zahra worries that the decision made in August could mean the money goes back to the state and said the city made a promise to residents to build the trail.
“The decision was very clear. If we don’t find other projects to reappropriate the money, then we return the money,” he said in a Thursday phone call.
“We need to make sure that everybody has access to open space.”
Nuncci said unlike the north part of town, neighborhoods in the south where a lot of working families live don’t have trails and other open space amenities.
“This is an area that is overpopulated, overdeveloped – where people are not thinking about green spaces,” Nuncci said. “Mental health (issues) are happening because our children don’t have the opportunity to go and play and run and enjoy.”
Jung contends there’s a need for open space in Fullerton’s south side and that it’s important for everyone in town to be able to enjoy both parks and trails.
“When you live in a park desert, basically what’s tantamount to an asphalt jungle or concrete jungle, any kind of park trail is absolutely warranted. I just want it done in a comprehensive manner,” he said.
The Union Pacific Trail
The project – the Union Pacific trail – had been years in the making with the city applying in 1999 for state grant funds to build a neighborhood park, parking lot, bikeway and trail in Fullerton.
It’s also part of a bigger plan to connect several city parks with a trail.
The city finished the first phase of the project – a half mile trail and bike lane from the transportation center in Downtown Fullerton to Highland Avenue – in 2006, according to a city staff report.
The city received a $1.78 million grant from the state in 2021 to fund the second phase of the project and build a trail, a bike lane as well as plant 176 trees from Highland Avenue to Independence Park – which officials say has crime issues.
The grant would have required the city to put $330,000 in the project.
But at an August meeting this year, Fullerton politicians voted 3-2 to re-approach the state and try to repurpose it for a different project – despite city park and recreation commissioners voting in favor of the trail.
The vote came despite vocal support from residents in public comments and a city survey that showed 58% of the 57 participants were in favor of the trail.
The decision made by politicians that night made one resident yell out from the audience during the Aug. 15 council meeting.
“You guys don’t see that people in the south don’t have money,” the resident exclaimed. “You guys don’t care about our families.”
City Councilmember Nick Dunlap who voted against using the money on the trail said at the meeting the city has an issue with maintaining the parks they already have because of budget woes and the area is riddled with crime.
In a Thursday interview, Dunlap said there should be one comprehensive plan to address the issues at Independence Park, reopen Union Pacific Park, high density housing planned for the area and create a trail.
“It just totally lacks vision,” he said of the plan. “That’s the better way to look at things, you know, to look at a kind of a complete plan as opposed to just a little piecemeal project here and there.”
City Council Members Zahra and Shana Charles were the dissenting votes.
“I find it very offensive that when it comes to South Fullerton, suddenly maintaining a trail becomes an issue. When we have all these open spaces in the north city, no one questions any of the maintenance there,” Zahra said at the meeting.
“These are neighborhoods that have never really had any kind of proper open space.”
Charles praised the idea of a trail in August pointing to large community support behind the project, the addition of trees and worried if they don’t take advantage of the grant they might not get future funding for projects like this.
“Somebody who has worked under grant funding for many, many years, when you give money back, they don’t want to give it to you again,” said Charles, a Cal State Fullerton Public Health professor.
She also said a trail could potentially reduce crime rates and drug use in the area.
In a Thursday phone interview, Charles said she is glad residents are speaking out for the trail and hopes it will get approved when it returns to the council.
“The importance of green space is vital to a community,” she said. “It really directly improves people’s mental health.”
City Councilman Bruce Whitaker, who lives in the south side, said at the Aug. 15 meeting residents in the city are allowed to use the parks and trails in other parts of the city.
“I’ve always stressed that we need some commerce in that area, it’s a natural commercial extension and that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t include green spaces and lots of trees. In fact, it would be best if it did,” he said.
Whitaker did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Nuncci is no stranger to community advocacy.
In 2015, she and other residents pushed the city council to take action against a dangerous intersection at Pacific Drive Elementary.
“People like me, we are relentless because we’re always going to fight for what is right for our community,” she said. “We’re going to give our community the opportunity to go enjoy a space with their families.”
Update: After this story was published, City Councilman Nick Dunlap clarified that officials had to balance creating open space and parks, along with approved high density plans for the area.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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