OAKHURST — The meeting room at the Yosemite Gateway Association of Realtors was packed on Wednesday night, Sept. 11, even on short notice as nearly 50 people showed up to consider options for making Oakhurst Community Park safe for families.
People who were described as “vagrants” have become an issue for families wanting to spend time in the park, and many related stories of drinking and pot smoking, aggressive dogs off-leash and verbal rants from homeless people who have made the park their own over the past several years.
A few weeks ago, Flint Tompkins and “Friends of the Park” abandoned their mission to have a presence there due to what they say have been personal threats.
In a post on their Facebook page on Aug. 26, Flint’s son Jeramiah Tompkins announced, “The Friends of the Park have put themselves in harm’s way to provide a safer community, but they no longer feel safe to be there.“
Andrew Pence has taken on the job of Chairman of the Oakhurst Community Park Committee after David Linn stepped down to run for District Attorney, and he called this meeting to invite ideas from the community. He will then present those ideas to the board next time they meet.
Pence made it clear at the start of the meeting that he was there to talk about the solutions, not the problems.
“I’m the leader, but I have no problem asking for your input and your help,” said Pence, who distributed an agenda and a list of possible cures for what ails the park. After laying out some ideas of his own, Pence opened things up for discussion.
The crux of the problem begins with the status of the park itself. It is private land, open for public use, and is leased from Harry Baker by the Park Committee for $1 a year.
“Using private land for public purpose gives us a strange combination of laws and penal codes,” said Pence, noting that there needs to be more power given to the Sheriff’s Office so they aren’t wasting their time.
Deputies patrol the park every day, and according to Deputy Chetwood, deputies spend more time in the park that anyone else.
“We arrest, they get out,” said Chetwood. Those taken into custody may be released before the arresting officer even gets back up the hill, one participant noted.
Some possible solutions discussed were updating the rules and regulations of the park, then empowering deputies to enforce strict adherence to park rules, removing violators and charging repeat offenders with trespassing.
Another approach would be hiring full-time security, though this option is very expensive.
Removing dense brush and foliage along the river, stopping the distribution of food to the homeless within the park boundaries, expanding the Citizens On Patrol program to include a park patrol, and fencing the entire area were also ideas for discussion.
Another idea was for the park to be designated a private park, with residents registering as members free of charge. Then membership could be denied to those who create problems for others, and trespassing would be a criminal activity as opposed to a civil matter for breaking the rules.
Matt Sconce of Met Heroes fame suggested a Park Heroes approach where people could make a monthly pledge to pay for private security. He also talked about creating a Park District where those living within a certain radius from the park would pay a tax to support park security.
Oakhurst resident and sergeant with the Fresno Police Department Greg Noll said getting the cooperation of the District Attorney is key to success. He encouraged Pence to have the committee put security in place immediately, urged the Friends of the Park to return strong and in force, and for everyone to do their research about the public/private issue.
“With everyone gone, they think they’ve won,” said Noll. “You need to get back into the park now.”
Pence will report back to the Park Committee on the results of the meeting, and promises to keep everyone in the loop as to what the next step will be.
Meanwhile, the Friends of the Park will be holding a prayer service in the park on Wednesday, Sept. 18, at 9 a.m. They invite everyone who cares about the Oakhurst Community Park to attend.