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Sonoma County airport site nixed from homeless camp search due to unexploded World War II military ordnance

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A parking lot near the Sonoma County Airport that officials had been eying for a temporary homeless camp contains vials of mustard gas and unexploded World War II-era military ordnance buried underground, a problem that for years has been addressed by prohibiting any digging at the site.

Confronted with questions Wednesday about the underground contaminants, county officials said they are no longer considering the airport location as a stopgap site to replace the growing homeless camp along the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa.

“I’m gravely concerned about housing people on top of such ordnance,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, whose north county district includes the airport. “Yes, we use that as a parking lot and a loading area. But that’s far different from managing a vulnerable population.”

Although officials say the county has known about the toxic material since the early 1980s, when rusted mustard gas cannisters were first discovered by construction crews digging a sewer line, the recent revelation that the site would need to undergo a state-required environmental review caused staff to yank the proposal from consideration about 3 p.m. Wednesday.

“That’s a fundamental challenge,” said Sonoma County General Services Director Caroline Judy, referencing the time- intensive environmental review process and its impact on the county’s desire to find a quick solution to the Joe Rodota Trail encampment. “Secondarily, the risks that potential development of the site could create those soil disturbances we don’t want to do.”

Far from residential developments that might yield significant pushback from neighbors, the airport site rose to the top of a long list of properties evaluated by county staff. Judy said staff evaluated all county-owned property, from the old hospital site along Chanate Road to the current county complex in Santa Rosa off north Mendocino Avenue. On Tuesday, staff will propose two sites to serve as temporary homeless camps to the Board of Supervisors. Neither location has been publicly identified.

“This has been a very aggressive effort to mitigate the health and safety crisis (at the homeless camp),” Judy said. “Each property has its own unique challenges.”

None are likely as unique as the county-owned airport site, a paved parking lot north of Airport Boulevard and Ordinance Road, and longtime home to the county’s Honor Farm next door to the North County Detention Facility, a county jail for low-risk inmates who run the farm.

In late 1982, construction crews discovered mysterious canisters while digging a sewer line in the area.

It would take six months before those so-called “ampules” would be identified as leftover chemical warfare training kits issued to soldiers during World War II, according to Press Democrat archives.

The county’s airport was formerly the Santa Rosa Army Airfield, a sprawling military air base that was pockmarked with waste deposits before being transferred to civilian use.

Discovery of the underground contaminants took place through the mid-1980s, during a construction boom that included the birth of the nearby Airport Business Center, a private complex. They were so common the development team knew the closer they built to the airport, the more they had to watch for military ordnance, said Larry Wasem, the center’s general partner.

In all, dozens of canisters of diluted mustard gas were found. They were used to train troops to identify the chemical weapon by smell. Many of the canisters were apparently tossed into the area near present day Ordinance Road and covered with dirt after failing to explode during training sessions.

The danger was downplayed at the time of discovery by then-Sonoma County Public Health Officer Dr. Robert Holtzer.

“It’s not all that dangerous,” he said. “I accidentally got some on my finger and it burned a little, but it won’t kill you.”

Plans to clear the site coalesced in the early 1990s, but never came to fruition, and county leaders say they have long operated under the assumption that the site still contains buried ordnance. For decades now, there has been a strict no-dig policy in place on the land.

Judy, the general services director, said the county doesn’t know exactly where on the strip of land the canisters and munitions exist. They are “known to be throughout the area,” she said.

As such, any development on the site, including trenching for utility wires, would have required a time-consuming and potentially costly environmental review process, Judy said.

“It’s not feasible given our timeframe,” Judy said, explaining why the county axed the site Wednesday.

Some county officials apparently were not aware of that problem until this week. Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said she learned about the buried chemicals only after The Press Democrat’s first story Tuesday about the proposed airport site.

She pointed to the revelation and quick decision to nix the site as evidence of a fast-moving public process.

That hasn’t been true of other sites up for consideration. All remain under wraps and county officials refused to divulge any on Wednesday, including homes the county wants to lease or buy to host up to 12 trail residents apiece.

Hopkins has said she wants a solution in place by Jan. 31 and plans a 6 p.m. Friday town hall meeting at the Roseland Library at which county officials will share the results of the planning process, as well as a timeline “for what residents can expect, and when they can expect it,” according to a Tuesday night Facebook post.

The small Roseland Library location, Hopkins said, would be convenient for Joe Rodota Trail neighbors and residents, allowing them to share their various perspectives.

The number of homeless people living along the public trail has doubled since October, swelling to 220 people. Neighbors have been rocked by a nighttime propane tank explosion in the camp that erupted into a fire, dealt with an increase in property thefts and witnessed a rodent infestation at the camp spill over into their yards.

Trail residents have been victims of crime themselves and three have died since March 2019, including one suicide by hanging, according to new data obtained this month from the Santa Rosa Police Department.

But many see the Joe Rodota Trail as a haven, too, and reject attempts to move them as an affront to their personal freedom.

Richard Seward has camped on the trail for about three years, including periods were he said he was just one of just five residents.

Seward said Monday that the biggest changes he’s noticed since the trail exploded in size is less police harassment and more help from volunteers.

“I had to stop accepting food,” Seward said with a laugh. “I wasn’t working, and I was eating so much I was gaining weight.”

County officials, meanwhile, are bracing for a next step they expect will be bruising — the public revelation of proposed shelter and homeless housing options.

Gore said the county needs to create sanctioned camps and shelters due to a federal court decision, centered in Boise, Idaho — and recently left to stand by the U.S. Supreme Court — that prevents local governments in western states from disbanding camps on public property when no suitable shelter alternatives are offered.

“It’s important for me that people understand that more shelters, indoor-outdoor shelters, especially because of the Boise decision, it’s coming,” Gore said. “We have to manage this, and I guarantee there’s no site in Sonoma County that doesn’t have a concern.”

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

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