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Lodi neighbors take back wetlands from transients

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Bernie Vigil

Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 6:03 am, Fri Mar 25, 2011.

Bernie Vigil was fed up. The Lodi resident and former corrections officer was tired of getting obscene gestures from trespassers and vagrants as they relieved themselves near his property.

Sickened by the littering, drug use and unsanitary conditions in the private wetlands near the Mokelumne River and Highway 99 where he's lived for more than 20 years, the Vietnam veteran decided to find a solution. A month ago, Vigil purchased the 11 acres of private wetlands from the development company that built his subdivision. Then he gathered his neighbors to evict the transients.

Now he's looking to transform the area into something his neighbors will enjoy looking at.

Having been abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandparents in abject poverty, Vigil said he didn't want to come across as a bully when dealing with the homeless who'd taken up residence nearby.

His first visit to the transient community was to inform them he now owned the land and they had a week to leave, he said. Vigil wanted to show compassion and understanding — and give them ample time to find a new place to go.

He also wanted to let the vagrants know he was serious. "I used the line from the movie 'Tombstone' when I told them I'd be back in a week," Vigil said. "I said: 'Hell's coming with me' when I come back."

As promised, Vigil and a few homeowners returned to the wetlands seven days later. They did not call the police for assistance. The eight people who were camping there scattered when they heard the group coming, he said. The homeowners began tearing down the tents and clearing out the garbage left behind during the evacuation.

Despite the fervent efforts of the homeowners, the scars from the vagrant community's treatment of the area will take time to heal.

Syringes, pornographic magazines, soiled children's toys, broken tents, playing cards, lottery tickets, wine bottles and shoes were some of the items still strewn among the Cattails and charred trees in the wetlands earlier this week. Across the area wafts the pervasive stench of sewage and moldy, wet clothes discarded in the grass.

A community of vagrants have been camping on private property near the river and in the Caltrans right-of-way under the freeway for years. Since the wetlands were owned by a development company and not by local homeowners, residents couldn't file formal complaints with the Lodi Police Department when transients set up a tent city virtually in their backyard. The drifters congregated on the banks of the river and by the wetland's overflow area, burning campfires and using the habitat as a toilet. While the police would respond to calls about drugs and fires, residents could not stop the trespassing since it wasn't their property.

Even though a significant portion of the debris has been removed and locked gates have been installed near the wetlands, much cleanup remains. The collapsed tents, shopping carts and assorted litter is visible from the highway. Vigil estimates the cleanup will cost several thousand dollars. But he's hoping his neighbors will pitch in to help.

"I own the land, but we can all enjoy it," he said about his neighbors whose backyards face the wetlands. "(Neighbors) who help clean up the area can have a key and partake in enjoying it later."

Vigil envisions the area being a picnic and day area for the children and grandchildren of neighbors in the area, and clean habitat for the ducks, river otters and fish that call the wetlands home.

How did the area get this way?

Arnaiz Development Company, Inc. has owned the property since the 1990s, when it built the subdivision in which Vigil lives. While there have been vagrants periodically residing in the wetland area since the neighborhood was built, their numbers increased in recent years as the county's economy tumbled, said Russell Ray, chief financial officer for Arnaiz.

While residents could call the police to complain about drug use or illegal fires burning, they could not issue complaints for trespassing because they did not own the land, Ray said.

The police have limited resources and more important things to worry about, Vigil said.

"It's a private property matter," he said.

The Stockton-based company couldn't keep constant tabs on the day-to-day conditions of the property, so they decided to sell it to Vigil, said Ray.

"It didn't make sense for us to manage it from our Stockton office," he said. "It made great sense to sell it to him."

The company parted with the property for an undisclosed sum because it is a wetland area that cannot be developed, so it held little value for the company, said Ray.

Members of the community have known about the transient camp for years and have worked to clean it up as best as possible.

"It was a chronic problem; we'd clean up part of it, but then the trash would come back," said Kathy Grant, watershed education coordinator for the city's public works program. "The biggest problem is human waste."

Grant witnessed the mess firsthand on a regular basis during annual Coastal Cleanup days. The vagrants would use five-gallon plastic buckets lined with bags as makeshift toilets, she said. When the bags filled, they would be tied off and thrown in the bushes.

"They would eventually leak and be washed into the river," she said.

During September's Coastal Cleanup, Grant said she and three volunteers collected 2.5 tons of trash from the still-occupied camp. Police officers would clear the area of vagrants and escort volunteers during the Coastal Cleanups, Grant said.

Caltrans cleaned up some of the area under the highway three weeks ago and could consider to do more once the weather clears up, said Chantel Miller, public information officer for Caltrans. Besides using the help of California Highway Patrol officers and homeless advocates to vacate people from under the freeway, "No Trespassing" signs were put up.

The total cost of Caltrans' cleanup has not yet been evaluated, Miller said.

Even though much work remains for him and his neighbors, Vigil said he is pleased he can help rehabilitate the area he's lived in for more than 20 years.

"I believe in 'live and let live,' but we are all stewards of our environment."

Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at jordang@lodinews.com.

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11 comments:

  • John Randall posted at 10:07 am on Wed, Mar 30, 2011.

    John Randall Posts: 21

    Bravo to Mr. Vigil !!!

    This was just an old-fashioned HOBO CAMP

    They pop up wherever...and remain until a person like Mr. Vigil comes along.

    Good Job, Mr. Vigil.

     
  • Harold Brown posted at 11:35 pm on Tue, Mar 29, 2011.

    Harold Brown Posts: 11

    Where were all of you when the kids were living in that drug infested Squallor? There are always those like you who speak up later to try and sound like the all caring individuals. You look for someone to trash. I would like to know how much effort you put forth to help those same kids. Answer NONE. But now that this has happened you have so many nasty things to say about the people that did something.

     
  • Harold Brown posted at 11:31 pm on Tue, Mar 29, 2011.

    Harold Brown Posts: 11

    Then Doug,
    Let them all come live with you!

     
  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 7:14 pm on Tue, Mar 29, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9403

    But, I wonder how a man could be so callous to the needs of the children he up rooted...

    Paul... once this man owned the land, he was legally liable for the land . If anyone was hurt or damaged while on his land, he could have been sued for damages. I think a week was one week too long. Maybe you should blame the corporation who let this problem fester in the first place, as well as the people who decided to settle on land that was not theirs.

     
  • Paul Watkins posted at 5:37 pm on Mon, Mar 28, 2011.

    Paul Watkins Posts: 1

    I would like to know how much effort Mr vigilante put into trying to help the children involved? I see a man that wanted to get rid of a human and material eye sore. It seems he got rid of his problem. But, I wonder how a man could be so callous to the needs of the children he up rooted. Something needed to happen. But, where was human care and decency? A week was given for these people to leave. Was there an exit strategy offered to them? Help offered to them? It appears that the children were thrown out with the trash. Does this not bother anyone?

     
  • Doug Chaney posted at 8:56 pm on Fri, Mar 25, 2011.

    Doug Chaney Posts: 1232

    I want to thank them, too. Being one of the worker/organizers of 4 river cleanups under the bridge co-ordinated by A Hand Up , not for profit and the Unity Project and aided by those homeless "victims" themselves and having walked that private property and seeing the mess twice firsthand, and discussing some way we could be allowed on the private property to also clean that up without having any liability problems, which we were unable to do, we cleaned up and painted graffiti over in the public access areas, taking out a large dumpster full each time. There wasn't anything mentioned about Mr. Vigil contacting any authorities after purchasing the property, only that he gave them one week to leave and then brought his group of homeowners back after a week and began tearing down tents and removing garbage. They did not call the police for assistance, so I surmised that he, as the new supposed property owner, took matters into his own hands, hence my "vigilante" statement, which is still my opinion. I am a board member of A Hand UP, a not for profit advocacy group for the homeless, and we have meetings the second Wednesday of every month at 4PM at the Uptown Thrift Shop on Sacramento street across from the train station. You are welcome to attend these meetings and meet these same people that were trespassing on Mr. Vigil's property and make it very clear to them, or one of their group or spokesman, that it is now private property owned by you and that you will call the police and have them forcibly removed. And young Vigil, what have my other 480 comments got to do with this issue? I am a fervent advocate for the homeless and underprivileged, but I don't condone any negative behavior from them, either. They've been warned many times to vacate that area and their negative behavior doesn't reflect that of the hundreds of other Lodi homeless. LPD is very familiar with each and every one of those 8 you asked to leave your property and they should have been notified to control the situation and not only order them to leave, but require them to immediately dismantle their tents and clean their own messes up or somehow pay the cost. I know most of those under the bridge and on the private land and sadly, unless Cal Trans, CHP or LPD address them, they're unwilling to budge, as you found out. Even when notified by authorities, most still refuse to clean up or remove their tents and personal belongings and are always the first to complain about having their items taken. I'm hoping to see you at the next Hand UP meeting. One of our main goals is to keep them off the streets and out from under the bridge and adjoining river property and we do the best we can to work and talk with them one on one to solve these problems.

     
  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 9:20 pm on Thu, Mar 24, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9403

    Christopher Vigil posted at 7:20 pm....Okay... here we go. I am going to stop this before it even gets started...

    Christopher... personally, I was uplifted by this story and want to thank your father and others for helping make Lodi a better place in which to live. If I had a negative feeling about anything, it was the actions taken by Arnaiz Development Company, Inc., that did nothing about the problem for so many years. I hope people take note and this company gets just consequences for its bad behavior. I hope the stated goal of the wet lands as stated in the article comes to be as it sounds like a wonderful change. I also hope the people who were vacated benefit from a change of scenery.

     
  • Christopher Vigil posted at 7:20 pm on Thu, Mar 24, 2011.

    Christopher Vigil Posts: 5

    Okay... here we go. I am going to stop this before it even gets started.
    (Do not attempt to turn this into something that it isn't)

    TO DOUG CHANEY: That is a very 'interesting' observation Mr. Chaney;
    However, Mr. Vigil DID contact ALL authorities, City, City Council, County, and State
    He also has posted signs citing municipal codes that Lodi City Police brought to his attention.
    He introduced himself countless times in a VERY CIVIL fashion.
    Also, the neighborhood Bernie lives in backs directly up to the habitat and LITERALLY is walking distance from that neighborhood via gated path... and that neighborhood has KIDS living there.
    (There were spent syringes, used cooking spoons, and extraordinary unsanitary piles of trash there)
    His neighbors are also civil, proactive, and very receptive to the idea of cleaning up this mess that 'TRESPASSERS' left behind.

    Just so everyone who reads this is clear, are you still suggesting that my father is (quoting you) 'vigilante'?
    Are you calling his neighbors, parents and children that I once lived next to, vigilantes as well?
    I trust there is not degrading subtext in your comments and that you have to intention of suggesting anything negative towards Mr. Vigil in any regard.

    I trust your record of nearly 480 comments on lodinews.com speaks for itself, so I will assume that you are a very responsible fella and have no intention of pursuing train of logic any further.
    I appreciate yours and anyone else's concern on this issue, as I am sure that this isn't the only private property that has this problem in the community.

     
  • Doug Chaney posted at 3:26 pm on Thu, Mar 24, 2011.

    Doug Chaney Posts: 1232

    Sir, since you purchased the property, why didn't you let the proper authorities handle the situation rather than forming a "vigilante" committee to intimidate those homeless people rather than approach them in a civil manner with the authorities present to make their move out ultimatum plain and clear with the authorities to document your actions?

     
  • trista aquino posted at 2:35 pm on Thu, Mar 24, 2011.

    trista aquino Posts: 98

    Wow that was a cool response :o)
    I used to go clean up some of the empty lots around here on the East side w/ a couple girls who lived by me.....Not for any particular reason, I guess just for a cleaner Earth- but we also posted signs afterwards that "this city is for everyone to enjoy, so everyone is welcome here to enjoy it- but please dont make this neighborhood clean up after you" That worked for a good long time actually.

     
  • Louis Franklin posted at 12:53 pm on Thu, Mar 24, 2011.

    Louis Franklin Posts: 1

    I have a number of student athletes who need community service hours. Please contact me at 209-663-2497 if you need some help

     

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