Close to 50 concerned citizens of Oakhurst filled the Yosemite Gateway Association of Realtors building Sept. 11 to discuss potential solutions to the ongoing vagrant problem at the Oakhurst Community Park.
The discussion was hosted and lead by Andrew Pence, chairman of the Oakhurst Community Park Committee, who laid out detailed options and necessary steps to "save" the Oakhurst Park.
Pence spent most of the meeting talking about solutions and recommendations to restore the park to a family friendly environment.
"Although I'm the president of the committee I'm not the type of leader that wants or can solve the problem by myself. I'm here for your input, I have no problem asking for help and that's what I'm here doing," Pence said.
Recently Flint Tompkins and Friends of the Park, who volunteered to monitor the park for 15 months, have withdrawn from personally patrolling the park due to ongoing threats and harassment from individuals loitering at the park.
Tompkins felt his presence helped while he was there, but at this point feels the park has become unsafe and members of the community are no longer willing to visit the once thriving area.
"It became a place where people could not use drugs and drink alcoholic with the same freedom as they did before," Tompkins said. "The park turned around when we first went over there ... we will come back as soon as chronic offenders can be kicked out and as soon as there is supervision in the park. We want to be greeters again and not police."
Tompkins made a point to say that he greatly appreciates that Friends of the Park and volunteers for their unrelentingly desire to restore the park back to its original prestige.
"The problem was the chronic offenders could not be kicked out of the park ... if you caught them drinking, they just received a citation and didn't have to leave," Tompkins said. "Even though they had bad behavior and caused problems they were never forced to leave," Tompkins said.
Changing rules parks biggest problem
The biggest challenge for the community and the Oakhurst Community Park Committee seems to be distinguishing what can and can't be done as far as the process of changing rules at the park.
The park property, which is private land, is owned by Harry Baker who leases the land for $1 to the park committee. The lease was recently re-signed for and additional 20 years.
"We are using private land for a public purpose," Pence said. "We need to understand there are penal codes set up for public land and private land, we sort of have a strange combination of the two so when it comes down to the sheriff's ability to enforce things that comes into play with us being able to change the ordinance and rules of the park."
The main point of the meeting was to brainstorm possible ideas and detailed options that could potentially save the park. More importantly members discussed possible ways to fund these proposals.
"Most of our recommendations and solutions could be solved with additional funding, the board will discuss different avenues of ways to get funding," said Pence. "We don't need to wait to use the park when it's safe we need to use the park to make it safe," Pence said.
Proposed solutions discuss in the meeting included:
Updating rules and regulation of the park
Hours of operation
Estimated time of implementation
Co-owner of the Met Cinema, Matt Sconce, discussed the possibility of creating a monthly donation called "Park Heroes" (a spin-off of Met Heroes) in order to raise monthly revenue for the purpose of funding security, cameras or whatever would be necessary to keep the park safe.
The idea received praise and seemed to be one solution most people were encouraged to support. The donation would require a small donation every month from community members that would go to fund park protection and services.
"I feel the community has two choices they can have a safe park where they can enjoy recreation or they can get rid of the park," Sconce said. "It is our responsibility to ensure a safe place for community members and their families."
Pence made clear to those attending the meeting that all suggestions and recommendations would have to go through a process and be approved before the possibility of being implemented which could take anywhere from two to 12 weeks.
"It is going to take time to secure funding and initiate new rules and regulations," Pence said. "But what we can do is continue using the park now, including schools, service clubs, churches, business and organizations in the community."
A group already on board with that philosophy is the Yosemite High School Badgers cross country team. The team of nearly 80, will be practicing for two hours, once a week, for what they are calling "Occupy the Park," according to coach Ellen Peterson.
"We will be a presence in the park and the moms and their children of this town need to know, the Badgers are coming and we are there for them," Peterson said.
Peterson, who also oversees the YHS Cadet Corps added that the cadets will also start spending some time in the park in an effort to make it safe for families.
A suggestion for cutting down shrubbery to expose the park was discussed but also faces legal blockades.
"The lack of visibility of the park gives people who are up to no good an opportunity to hide and be discrete," Pence said.
Pence noted that it in order for a "face-lift," Fish and Game would be needed to assess what plants are indigenous and can't be cut versus those that could legally be removed.
Other issues discussed included food distribution without a permit, disturbing the peace, and the possibility of expulsion from the park for repeat offenders.
The problem of people in the park who may suffer from mental health challenges, or displacement issues proved more difficult to find solutions for due to funding and legal matters.
The park already has signs posted prohibiting dogs off a leash and the consumption of alcohol but members of the community says it is not enough and does not give the sheriff a strong hold to arrest individuals in the park.
Pence and citizens, many of which formally or currently work for law enforcement agencies, made it clear that a combined effort from law enforcement agencies, the district attorney's office and community members is necessary for the park to reach its full potential.
The park committee plans to hold a board meeting before the end of the month to discuss the ideas presented and begin the process of improving park safety.