City makes plans to clear brush from Town Center, library land

Walk down a trail from the Homer Public Library to the Poopdeck Trail, and with brush in full leaf at high summer, the trail turns into a green tunnel. Alder, fireweed, grass and elderberry bushes choke the gravel path. At clearings along the trail, people hang around smoking and drinking. Beer and liquor bottles litter the ground, and the number “420” — slang for “let’s smoke marijuana” — spray painted on a tree hints at less-legal uses.

While the Poopdeck Trail got some clearing last year, high grass and brush covers the property to the west, a mix of Cook Inlet Region Inc. and city of Homer land. Trails snake off through the brush and over the wet ground.

On planning maps, the city calls that area the Town Center. Ten years ago, a gang known as the Wolfpack called it “Boyztown,” homeless camps associated then with a small crime wave. It’s been an ongoing problem area where vagrants could disappear into the thick brush and camp in downtown Homer. 

City officials plan to clear out brush and trim trees to make the area more visible, including the trail from the library to the Poopdeck Trail.

“We hope the clearing makes it less inviting for illegal campers,” said Homer Police Chief Mark Robl. “We’ll be able to get close and see through it and under the branches without having to walk it.”

At Monday night’s Homer City Council meeting, the council amended and introduced on first reading an ordinance that would appropriate up to $25,000 to clear the library trail and city land in the Town Center.

Mark Matthews, a Homer man who sometimes camped in the area, died at the lower end of the Poopdeck Trail a year ago on July 28, 2013, a death police quickly called a murder and remain investigating. Robl said police associate other criminal activity such as drug use with the area. Hardcore inebriates also live there, he said.

Council member David Lewis called the area “a bat cave … a place where a bunch of homeless ones hang out and do things they don’t tell their mother about.”

At the Karen Hornaday Park Campground and city camping areas on the Homer Spit, people can pay to camp up to 14 days in a spot. Campers then have to move to a different campsite if available, Robl said.

Robl acknowledged that some homeless people and transient can’t afford to stay at city or private campgrounds.

Campsites in the Town Center can be elaborate, Robl said.

“We’ve had some that were wooden structures somebody took time assembling,” he said. “We get tents, we get the blue-tarp thing. A little bit of everything gets mixed up in there.”

Police found one person who had gotten kicked out of an apartment had personal property placed on pallets and wrapped up in tarps. 

CIRI has posted the area no trespassing, and given the city authority to enforce no-camping rules on its land. Police aren’t looking to arrest people, Robl said, and will issue warnings to people to move on and then charge them with criminal trespassing if they don’t. Police also check for outstanding arrest warrants and sometimes find illegal campers with illegal drugs. During a campfire burn ban earlier this summer, police walked through the area to make sure there weren’t any campfires burning.

Robl said the worst areas for hidden camps tend to be in thick brush and forest behind the old Homer Cleaning Center and below the Heritage Hotel and Alice’s Champagne Palace.

Public Works Director Carey Meyer said the plan is to put brush clearing out for bid later this summer. Wetland areas would be best worked in the winter when the ground is frozen. Big trees won’t be cut.

“Our idea is to clear out the thin, scrawny ones and alders, and then limb the big strong ones high enough so we can see them,” Robl said.

At Monday night’s meeting, speaking on behalf of the Friends of the Homer Public Library, Sue Mauger said she supported ordinance 14-36, the ordinance to appropriate money for clearing. Mauger said the library has had concerns about safety along the footpath. The city also needs a longer term vision to keep fast-growing brush cleared, she said. 

“We hope to keep the conversation going so we can do more than flush out the bad; we need to usher in the good,” she said.

At the meeting, council members debated the $35,000 amount originally proposed. Council member Beau Burgess, who has a company that does land-clearing work, said he thought the $35,000 price tag was double or even triple a reasonable bid to do the job. 

“I’ve had experience on this council having Lexus options when a Honda Civic or Ford Focus was available, and we went for the Lexus because someone recommended it,” Burgess said.

Burgess eventually offered an amendment reducing the appropriation to $25,000. Council member David Lewis offered an amendment splitting the bids for the library trail and the Town Center clearing. That amended ordinance passed on first reading and will come up for a public hearing and second reading at the Aug. 11 city council meeting.