Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

It took only a couple hours for 15 county jail inmates and eight probationers to remove 2.5 tons of refuse that had been accumulating on county property between Walmart and U.S. 101 for the last five years and there’s still more to clean up.

Take a Bite out of Blight founder Roger Gitlin, also District 1 Del Norte Count supervisor, coordinated the effort, which led to three dumpster loads of bicycles, trash, bedding, shopping carts, clothing, furniture, tarps and other refuse being pulled from the network of trails in the underbrush.

Gitlin said gloves and pickers were provided by Caltrans. Water, bags, gloves and other supplies were donated by Walmart and CHP brought extra needle containers.

“These guys are moving some weight,” said Sheriff Erik Apperson at the scene of the cleanup.

Gitlin noted that about 10 shopping carts from various stores had been pulled from the forest, some too damaged to reuse. One stripped electric mobility cart was also pulled from the brush.

With the three dumpsters packed full, workers decided to call it a day. Some trash was bagged and left in the area. Gitlin said another volunteer group will come in soon to complete the job.

Although the job is not finished, the total weight of refuse taken from the wooded area Tuesday came to 4,900 lbs.

A safety issue

Apperson said the practice impacts the environment in negative and sometimes, dangerous ways.

“We have found human waste, we have found needles, we’ve found edged weapons...” he said. “It’s not safe back here.”

Apperson said workers filled the first of three dumpsters shortly after their arrival.

“I don’t think three dumpsters will be enough,” he said. “We’re not going to get this done today.”

Pointing at an area that had been cleared, Apperson showed trash in some places was a foot deep.

“This is years of neglect and didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “The county needs to take a more active role. We need to be good stewards and property owners. People that own property have to be responsible for policing their own property.”

Apperson said the county is leading by example in conducting such cleanups.

9th Circuit considerations

However, in cleaning up the area, it was discovered that a large plastic makeshift tent was still occupied.

Apperson said the occupant was not evicted but was instead informed he is camping illegally. He said officers did not enter the makeshift structure or attempt to remove it.

“We let him know what we’re doing here today,” he said. “We also let him know that he’s illegally camping here but that’s a separate issue we’re working on today.”

Asked if the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that officers cannot disturb or arrest those sleeping in public places was their reasoning for the warning, Apperson said no.

“There’s going to be a lot of debate that goes through the court process on that decision, but the way I see it, we’re cleaning up the environment, and this is a heavy focus on eradicating trash,” he said. “As far as somebody camping here, they’re not allowed to camp here. The 9th Circuit Court, in my opinion, didn’t say people are allowed to camp wherever they want to camp. What it said was that people can rest and we can’t remove them from public property.”

Apperson said the decision does not allow people to essentially homestead wherever they wish.

“What we have to do is stay diligent and if we see someone setting up a living quarters, we have to make contact with them, tell them they are not allowed to set up a living quarters and that they can rest,” he said. “When they are done resting, they have to move on. The big question is; what’s a reasonable period of time to rest?”

Apperson said more definitions need to come out of the legal process.

More is needed

“Caltrans has taken notice of this and they need help,” Gitlin said. “Sheriff Apperson is on board and California Department of Corrections, the prison is on board and we’re going to be a major help in clean up Caltrans right-of-ways.”

He said he hopes the program will go countywide, then beyond to the state level.

“There are all kinds of sheriff’s inmate crews,” he said. “Every 58 counties, they’re getting out there and breaking a sweat, they’re happy. I’m going to buy them pizza after lunch.”

“The systemic problem comes from, how do we prevent this?” he said, noting the cleanup is TABOB’s 45th project. “Our number one project in 2013 was this same property, so it’s taken a little over five years to look the way it did. Now, how do you prevent that, other than with resources? You have to have resources.”

Gitlin suggested the community come together to ask for more resources and cleanups.

“We need another code enforcement officer to monitor all these cleanups, and more sheriff’s deputies to patrol,” he said, asserting nothing will change otherwise.

On Thursday, Pelican Bay State Prison crews are scheduled to clean up trash in the medians of U.S. 101.