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Officials: Sonoma County closed Joe Rodota Trail to prevent another homeless encampment

As city leaders planned sweeps of homeless encampments beneath Highway 101 in downtown Santa Rosa, Sonoma County officials tailored the county’s maintenance timeline for work on portions of the Joe Rodota Trail to ensure its closure amid the evictions.

But a series of delays to the city’s plans led the county to artificially extend its closure of 3 miles of the 8.5-mile trail for nearly a month, much longer than county officials planned, and has raised questions about the county’s plan for addressing its ongoing homelessness crisis.

“Until (a strategy) is put forward that can be evaluated, we have to assume there is no strategy,” said Miles Sarvis, a bicyclist and homeless advocate with the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition. “And if there is no strategy, the unsheltered population is just being used as pawns for a game that I don’t understand.”

The move comes five months after Sonoma County cleared nearly 300 homeless people from a sprawling encampment along the west Santa Rosa trail and county supervisors agreed to spend up to $12 million to house those people. Those millions, said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin, were a big factor in the protracted trail closure.

“I think that was pretty clear,” Gorin said. “We spent an absolute fortune in cleaning that trail up.”

Since June 1, Sonoma County Parks has closed a 3-mile stretch of trail from Wright Road to the pedestrian bridge intersection at the Prince Memorial Greenway. In that time, county crews have rebuilt portions of the multiuse trail’s shoulder, as well as cleared some vegetation using chainsaws and weed wackers. Officials expect the trail to be reopened by this weekend.

Sonoma County Parks officials were hesitant to reveal the other motive, and there is no mention of the county’s strategy in the closure notice on the department website. But Sonoma County Park Manager David Robinson acknowledged fear of another large encampment played a pivotal role in the extended shuttering of the Joe Rodota Trail.

“It did play into this timeline,” Robinson said. “The elongation was for some fear of another encampment forming along the Joe Rodota Trail.”

Santa Rosa Housing and Community Services Director David Gouin said city plans to clear dozens of homeless residents from camps beneath Highway 101 overpasses were first developed in late May. He blamed delays on racial injustice protests in downtown Santa Rosa, and the county initiated further delays two weeks ago when it launched an aggressive coronavirus testing program after confirming at least two people infected with the virus had visited those camps.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who was a voice for quick action as the Rodota Trail camp grew last fall in her west county district, said the specter of another encampment establishing itself along the trail has been an ongoing concern. But Hopkins deferred credit — or blame — for the trail closure strategy to Bert Whitaker, the director of Sonoma County Regional Parks.

“That was a decision made by parks leadership to do some maintenance work and close the trail around the time the city was shutting down and clearing the encampments, because we cannot let that happen again,” said Hopkins, who was the subject of a failed recall effort as a result of the encampment.

Whitaker was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. Hopkins denied pressuring parks staff for the closure, saying the timing of the sweeps wasn’t on her “radar.”

“I definitely have broadly said, ‘We can’t have that happen again,’” Hopkins said.

On Monday, residents whose homes back up to the trail were enjoying what has become their own private section of the public park. One woman, who pushed a stroller alongside a young girl near Stony Point Road, said park rangers have permitted neighbors to use the trail because they have access between the two closure points.

Sarvis called the county’s plan disappointing, and he struggled to make sense of county actions in the past six months.

“I was told as a bicyclist that the trail was not usable,” Sarvis said, referring to the county’s decision to post warning signs as the encampment grew out of control last fall and winter. “And now I’m learning that I can’t bicycle, not because the trail’s not usable, but because the county doesn’t want people to live there.”

Robinson said the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust upon county parks an outsized demand for park resources, squeezing the department’s limited resources and hindering its ability to properly patrol or prevent another encampment from springing up along the trail.

A limited closure, he acknowledged, made more sense.

“We want folks to get help, and we want them to have a place to stay,” Robinson said. “Our park rangers do an incredible job of connecting folks with the Department of Health Services. But it’s really hard for our teams, who are already stretched thin, to spend time doing so.”

Department of Health Services Director Barbie Robinson, who was appointed amid the previous Joe Rodota Trail crisis as interim executive director of the Community Development Commission — the county’s lead homelessness agency — could not be reached for comment on the county strategy. And an email to a spokesman seeking to clarify the role of either of Robinson’s departments in the trail closure was not returned Monday.

Hopkins said her district staff has received a number of complaints related to the extended trail closure, and she called the length of the closure “unacceptable.” She also said the tactic fell short of the type of solution the county needs amid the crisis.

“I see conveniently timed maintenance as a Band-Aid solution compared to the open-heart surgery we need,” she said. “We need something that is drastic and dramatic and really gets at the root of the problem.”

A discussion is planned for the July 7 Board of Supervisors meeting.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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