Glance across the overgrown former walnut orchard along Santa Rosa's Montgomery Drive and next to St. Eugene's Cathedral, and it's easy to imagine that nothing has happened for decades within the two chain-link fences encircling the ruins of the Carrillo Adobe.
But the briars conceal a burst of conflict and activity at the creekside spot where Santa Rosa was born, where Maria Carrillo built an earthen home atop the abandoned stone foundations of what may have been intended to become California's northernmost Spanish mission.
On Wednesday, Larry Carrillo, a descendant of the city's first non-native family, walked onto the 15-acre swath of creekside land with a police officer and Santa Rosa High history teacher Dave Franzman.
The officer was there to assure that no squatters ordered in recent weeks to vacate the property would hassle Carrillo and Franzman as they searched encampments scattered with trash, excrement and bicycle parts for original timbers carried away from the 175-year-old adobe.
Carrillo, Franzman and some helpers have by now recovered 14 of an unknown number of original porch posts and ceiling beams that were stolen from the ruins and carted to nearby encampments to be burned or used to support tarps for shelter.
Franzman, who in the past has brought dozens of members of Santa Rosa High's History Club to clear brambles and trees and to examine the adobe ruins, was conflicted over what squatters have done to the property over just the past few months.
"I am sorry for the homeless. Most of them are good people and I wish society provided for them in a humane way," he said. At the same time, he lamented that the ruins have been pillaged and the property between it and St. Eugene's Cathedral dug up in places and littered with human waste and other hazards.
The teacher said he was shocked to see how many camps — most of them vacated by Wednesday — had been established since last fall among the trees and blackberry brambles.
"It's unsafe. It's totally unclean and unsanitary," he said. "I'd like to see it get the recognition it deserves as the beginning of Santa Rosa."
The city is planning to clear away any remaining encampments on Feb. 15.
For decades, people who see a historic treasure in the 1837 Carrillo Adobe and the land around it, which prior to the arrival of Europeans was a place important to native Pomos, have pushed for the ruins to be properly preserved and the site cultivated into an educational community asset.
The owner of the property, development company Barry Swenson Builder of San Jose, has agreed to set aside the adobe and a collar of land around it as a preserve.
The firm has City Hall approval to build 140 condominiums and 25 affordable-rent senior apartments on the property. Mike Black, a spokesman for Barry Swenson Builder, said the company has waited for the economy to improve and now would "like to get going" on construction.
But first, Black said, the company needs to evaluate whether the approved condos-apartments proposal seems to be the wisest project for the property, given the current economy. If not, the firm will have to come to City Hall with another proposal.
When and if the development of the property becomes real, the builder and the city and advocates of the Carrillo Adobe will have to come to terms over what improvements will be made to the adobe site, how big it will be and where the money will come from to maintain the historic attraction as a community asset.