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Parking lot near Sonoma County airport considered for sanctioned homeless camp

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It has been two weeks since Sonoma County supervisors took the biggest step yet to address the county’s largest homeless camp, on the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa, approving nearly $12 million in emergency spending on a mix of short- and long-term shelter and housing options to relocate camp residents.

But in that time, as behind-the-scenes work progresses, the outcry from a frustrated public has grown louder, with nearby residents saying the camp quagmire has become more dire.

The number of people living along the public trail has swelled to 220 — twice what was counted in October. And since late December, neighbors have been rocked by a nighttime propane tank explosion in the camp that erupted into a fire, dealt with more cases of stolen property and witnessed a rodent infestation at the camp spill over into their yards.

“Things aren’t changing. Things are getting progressively worse,” said Jon George, who lives with his wife and three kids a few houses down from the county trail.

County officials have been tight-lipped about the location of sanctioned camps or group homes they are pursuing to help clear the trail. But one leading site surfaced Monday — a parking lot near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport that could be converted into a temporary camp for some of the trail residents.

The timeline for that move remains elusive, and it’s unclear trail residents would embrace new living options, reflecting the complexity of the problem.

Other measures, including expanded trash pickup, beefed-up security for camp residents, needle disposal sites and pest control to address the rat population have come online since Christmas, but with the camp continuing to grow, nearby residents say they’ve seen little change.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who has come under intense scrutiny for the encampment in her west county district, said she has spoken daily with county staff since the Dec. 23 meeting when the Board of Supervisors approved the emergency spending.

However, the propane tank explosion Dec. 30 and the public release last Friday of infrared video from the Sheriff’s Office helicopter showing the rat infestation have only ratcheted up the pressure.

Although Hopkins praised county staff for sharing a sense of urgency, she said some of that is newfound, and the laser focus on long-term solutions in some corners has not helped.

“Months or years is not acceptable,” she said.

Supervisor James Gore said he wasn’t happy the county had to “go into crisis mode” to generate solutions, but he said some of the blame lies with elected officials.

“I have to point the finger also at us, because we had to put money on the table. That’s when things change,” Gore said.

Hopkins on Monday acknowledged a site near the airport — within Gore’s north county district — is being considered for a sanctioned camp. It is a paved parking lot north of Airport Boulevard and Ordinance Road, sandwiched between the North County Detention Facility, a county jail for low-risk inmates, and the general aviation hub and hangar complex — a gateway for the county’s jet set.

It is the top sanctioned camp choice among two that will come to Board of Supervisors at its Jan. 14 meeting. Hopkins said via text message the site would have trailers for services and showers, restrooms and hand-washing stations.

Hopkins stressed the temporary nature of the site, saying it “would be a place for people to pitch their tents.”

It is likely to face some immediate opposition.

Larry Wasem, the general partner for the Airport Business Center, a sprawling business park near the airport, wasn’t aware of the proposal for a sanctioned camp, and when asked for a comment, said he had none.

“Other than the general observation that homelessness does nothing to add to the economics, scenic beauty or viability of any business park,” he said.

“We would very strongly object,” he added, clarifying his group’s stance on the proposal.

Sonoma County Airport Manager Jon Stout could not be reached for comment about the potential for a sanctioned encampment across the street from his office.

It’s unclear, too, how easily county officials could move people from the Joe Rodota Trail to the airport site.

David Martin, who has lived on the trail for about five months and has seen its growth in that time, said he wouldn’t go for such a move.

“We’re not really good with orders any more. We feel beat up by society,” Martin said. “I don’t feel (a sanctioned camp) is gonna be an option.”

County officials this week are set to reveal other sites and homes that have been targeted for housing people living along the Joe Rodota Trail.

They plan to start notifying nearby businesses and homeowners with fliers posted near the selected sites.

Community Development Commission spokeswoman Janelle Wetzstein wouldn’t identify the sites Monday, but did confirm they’ve been selected, raising questions about the community’s ability to vet locations.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, the incoming board chairwoman, acknowledged the dilemma and its potential to generate strong blowback.

“I know time is of the essence,” Gorin said. “Will we have time to totally vet all locations? Maybe not. But certainly we welcome all community input.”

But some camp residents have already made it clear they view relocation as government intrusion. Richard Seward, who has lived along the Joe Rodota Trail for three years, likened any forced move to an internment camp.

He acknowledged the public trail is no place for hundreds of people to live, with wet conditions and crowding that have fueled a litany of health concerns, from trench foot to the burgeoning rodent population.

Seward wouldn’t choose the trail if it were up to him, he said.

“But they won’t let us do it anywhere else. Not the way we’ve been doing it. We’re living on our own. We’re living free. We’re living the American dream for real. This is freedom. This is the right to choose what you do.”

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

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