The Felton Faire shopping center and Covered Bridge Park has become a hotbed of activity in recent months, and not necessarily for the right reasons.
A spike in illegal activity has drawn the attention of law enforcement and environmental groups to a slew of campsites along the San Lorenzo River, on its tributary creeks and under bridges.
Sgt. John Habermehl, who heads the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office in the San Lorenzo Valley, said he has noticed “a lot more” reports from the Felton Faire and Covered Bridge Park claiming harassment by transients, as well as illegal dumping and drug and alcohol incidents.
Earlier this month, deputies apprehended William Arthur Pickerell — at the time called Santa Cruz County’s “most wanted” suspect by the sheriff’s office — just after midnight at the Covered Bridge Park. Pickerell was wanted for felony theft and probation violations.
While Habermehl said his enforcement goal is not to target the homeless, but to focus on illegal activity. He added that many of the encampments have become an environmental concern, as they tend to generate dumps of trash and human waste.
In early February, Habermehl said, a team of deputies, inmates and volunteers pulled three dump trucks full of trash and debris from encampments under a handful of bridges along the San Lorenzo River and Zayante Creek waterways.
“The reality is that it’s a maintenance process,” Habermehl said. “You’re never going to weed it all out — it’s just something that needs to be addressed.”
A month after Habermehl’s team pulled its haul, a countywide volunteer organization called The Clean Team descended on the same area and pulled out another massive load.
“We’re trying to hit all the hot spots (in the county),” said organizer Chris Brown. “We can’t just sit in our cars and pretend it’s not happening anymore.”
Since the organization’s inception in November, Brown said, volunteers have collected more than 20,000 pounds of trash from public lands.
The Clean Team is an offshoot of the Take Back Santa Cruz organization that was inspired to start when she saw a photo of a massive cache of used hypodermic syringes that had washed ashore on Cowell’s Beach.
“We wanted to take action,” she said. “Once you get out there and see it, you can’t stop.”
Brown said that while her team was working along the San Lorenzo River at Covered Bridge Park, she was shocked to see the amount of garbage and feces strewn about the riverbank.
“There wasn’t enough of us,” she said.
Brown also said that many of the transients she and her volunteers encountered in the park were “the scariest (people) I’ve seen in my life” and said several approached her volunteers in a threatening manner.
“Kind of spooky — it gives you the chills,” she said. “They’re all sitting at the table cussing while little kids are being pushed on the swings right behind them.”
Habermehl said that most transients move along when clean-up efforts come through, but added, “You have some folks that are set on staying in one particular area.”
Felton business owner John Fasolas said that it seemed as though the problem with transients in Felton had been exacerbated in the wake of the acquisition — and subsequent development — of the Felton Meadow property by Mount Hermon last year.
“Part of the situation is that for a long time (transients) were hiding out on the property,” he said. “Folks were hiding in the overgrowth and there are a lot of woods there, which worked out nice for them.”
Fasolas said that one concern of his was a group of transients who he described as setting up shop on the redwood deck in downtown Felton, littering, defecating into planter boxes, and intimidating customers and business owners.
“They’re very rude to the store owners,” he said. “They look at store owners and go ‘What are you going to do about it?’”
Many of the business owners feared confronting them, Fasolas said, out of fear of being retaliated against.
“There’s at least 3 or 4 who are considerably more aggressive than others,” he said. “It’s like they have a little fort there – it’s gotten to the point now where no one wants to hang out in Felton.”
Brown said that she noticed some of the transients had set up shop on private property — with the permission of the owners — but were still allowing trash, waste and other debris to enter the river.
“That’s a big problem,” she said. “That river belongs to everybody — don’t just turn a blind eye and let the pollution happen.”
In nearby Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, the encampment problem is less prevalent. According to park ranger Gary Brennan, frequent patrols and potential dumping fines are fairly effective at chasing away would-be illegal campers.
“There’s a bunch of regulars up here, and we keep an eye out for them,” he said. “If we see a campsite, we’ll clean it up.”
Brennan said that while the situation inside the park is not that bad, he has backed up deputies during clear-outs of encampments under bridges near the park’s borders.
“The sheriff’s office has been pretty proactive from keeping people from living under the bridges,” he said. “A couple of those bridges had full living quarters under there.”
For more information about The Clean Team: https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/groups/564421826916911/?fref=ts
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