2 Transient Encampment Parcels Down – Many More to Go

At 31, Nick Bundy of Redding has already demonstrated that he’s not afraid of tackling formidable challenges.

As an 18-year-old he was a motocross racer who was badly injured in a crash on country star Loretta Lynn’s ranch. As a young man, he ran heavy equipment for his father’s logging business, and to this day he sometimes works as a timber-faller for his dad. Bundy has built roads, fences, decks and houses. He started and sold a food-and-beverage distribution business.

He bought a house and got married. He and his wife now have a baby girl, who Bundy cares for while his wife works her shifts as a registered nurse.

What’s more, Bundy’s just as comfortable driving heavy equipment for his land-clearing and excavation company as he is carrying his baby daughter in an infant seat to an interview with a reporter.

He laughed at the suggestion that some might describe him as a squeaky wheel on steroids, because he knows it’s true. His nature is to fix things and find solutions to problems, whether that requires repeated phone calls to the chief of police or requests for multiple meetings with the city manager.

This last year demonstrated classic Bundy at work, as he helped lead the charge to eradicate dozens of illegal transient camps located in the green belt areas below his Indian Hills subdivision; next-door property to Linden Canyon (sometimes mistakenly called Mercy Canyon for its proximity to Mercy Medical Center).

Both areas are notorious – at least among law enforcement – for containing some of the city’s most impressive transient encampments, a combined area that covers dozens of acres.

Bundy was ignorant of the illegal camps until the summer of 2013 when he and his wife bought their first home in the Indian Hills subdivision, located south of Placer Street and east of Buenaventura Boulevard. It wasn’t long before they noticed trouble in the ravines beyond the typically peaceful streets of their Indian Hills neighborhood.

For example, it wasn’t unusual for residents to hear gunshots, yelling, cussing and fighting from the ravine, mainly at night. The neighbors whose homes were nearest the ravine had it the worst. One older man said he’d called the police multiple times about what he was hearing, but nobody came, so he found his own way to cope with the noise.

“He dealt with it by turning his TV up louder,” Bundy said.

The Redding Fire Department was aware of the area, too. Bundy said that in June of 2013 the Redding Fire Department sent a letter to the owners of one of the largest chunks of green belt property, warning of the fire hazards the illegal camps posed, and said that the property-owner  had 10 days to get the land cleared and cleaned up, or face enforcement.

As months passed, Bundy and his neighbors noticed increased numbers of scruffy people coming and going — on foot, bike and even by Moped — down into the undeveloped land at all hours. Sometimes heated confrontations erupted between residents and transients when residents confronted transients and told them they had no right to be on the private land beyond the subdivision.

One neighbor cut a tree and dropped it across the widest opening to the trail, which resulted in an angry reaction from one of the campers who didn’t appreciate the barricade.

No matter. The transients created a detour.

Bundy recalls at least three times he heard gunfire in the ravine, without police responding to residents’ calls. He said Halloween night of 2013 was especially harrowing at the Indian Hills subdivision when the quiet night was pierced by the sound of an explosion from the green belt, quickly followed by a fire that ignited one end of the ravine. Fire crews came and put out the fire.

Not that residents weren’t already alarmed, but the Halloween fire drove home the point about the deadly risk of letting the situation in the ravine go unchecked any longer. The incident propelled Bundy and his neighbors into action. Soon after, he and about six guys from the neighborhood agreed to meet and walk down into the ravine together to size up the situation.

“When is enough, enough?”  Bundy said. “We said, ‘Let’s go look.’ ”

Bundy and the other men put on dirty clothes – hoping to fit in if they encountered those who lived in the brush below-  and traveled as nonchalantly as possible down the hill.

They immediately saw evidence of scattered clothes and litter. The further they walked, and the deeper they moved down into the brush, the more they saw.

They saw piles of clothes, buckets, tents, bikes, garbage, food containers, chairs, tables and lots of cardboard.

They saw a bottomless chair with a pile of feces beneath it. They saw ice chests, barbecues, storage bins, shelving units, gas cans, wagons and blankets.

They saw tents and tarps stretched into lean-tos and roofs. They saw solar panels. They even saw a hand-dug pond.

Deeper still into the brush, into the Linden Canyon encampments, there were items that looked like they might have originated from the nearby Mercy Medical Center.

Between the piles and the garbage and the camps there were also some people who peered out from tents and tarps, looking quizzically at the men who’d hiked down from the subdivision.

Within the combined Indian Hills and Linden Canyon areas, Bundy and his group identified about 40 separate camps. They estimated that between 100 to 150 people lived there, off and on. Bundy said that one man said he’d been there for about four years.

That morning’s field trip was a turning point. For Bundy and many of his Indian Hills neighbors, there was no going back.

In addition to disliking the camps’ mess and noise, residents were uneasy about exactly who lived in the camps. Were they harmless, down-and-out people, or AB-109 hardcore criminals?

“One neighbor watched two guys in the green belt looking at his daughter and friend play in their back yard,” Bundy said.

Residents also worried about fire, in the middle of an epic drought.

“There were multiple fires that luckily got put out,” Bundy said. “It’s scary to think that what happened in Weed could happen here.”

Plus, residents were concerned about the criminal element drawn to the camps, evidenced by suspected stolen property, such as safes, cell phones, purses and literally hundreds of pounds of bikes and bike parts.

As Bundy and his fellow workers cleared the green belt of the transient encampments, they filled a trailer with 2,300 pounds of bikes and bike parts.

Those were among myriad concerns that prompted the creation of an informal Indian Hills Neighborhood Association, formed in December of 2013, nearly 140 members strong.

Since the group’s inception, Joannie Morrison has been the association’s de facto administrator. She’s documented all communication – every email, meeting and phone call – between the association and the various city departments, including emails to Redding’s fire chief, police chief, code enforcement officer and city manager.

Early on in the process, to dramatically illustrate the scope of the problem, the association sent city officials more than 20 photos that showed the graphic nature of the encampments. The group pointed out the fire hazards, and asked for city help eradicating the encampments.

The messages reached Redding Police Chief Robert Paoletti, who recently acknowledged the significant efforts of  two particular Indian Hills Association members.

“Nick Bundy and Joannie Morrison have taken on the lion’s share of the work in the Linden Canyon project, and they deserve the attention of this department,” Paoletti said, adding that help is on the way.

“We are currently working on a project behind the Masonic Lodge and will shift to focus on Linden Canyon when that project is completed.”

According to Redding City Manager Kurt Starman, in some ways citizens like Bundy – who he commends for taking a leadership role in eradicating transient encampments –  have the benefit of more leeway when it comes to cleaning up illegal encampments.

“As a private individual, (Bundy) has more flexibility to deal with some of the problems in this area, such as illegal camp sites and trash,” Starman said.

“The City of Redding must follow a court-defined process to abate illegal camp sites for legal reasons. That process takes a significant amount of time. Mr. Bundy is not subject to those same legal requirements because he is essentially operating as an agent for the property owners.”

Redding Police Chief Robert Paoletti echoed Starman’s observations about citizens’ flexibility.

“Private property owners are under much less restrictions than the police and code enforcement team to clean up their own property,” Paoletti said.

Eventually, working with private property owners is exactly what led to Bundy’s most dramatic before-and-after successes in terms of cleaning up some of the illegal camps. Property owners hired Bundy and gave him consent to remove the trash and clear the land.

During the past year’s struggle to get rid of the transient camp sites, Indian Hills Association members often felt tremendous frustration and confusion about which agencies to contact when, and which departments were responsible for what. They felt dizzy from being referred to the police department, only to be referred to the fire department, followed by referrals to city code enforcement, sometimes being pointed back to the department that had just referred them elsewhere.

Undaunted, the Indian Hills Association continued with a barrage of phone calls, emails and meetings, one taking place as recently as this week between Bundy and Starman.

On one occasion, Redding City Council member Missy McArthur accepted the group’s invitation to hear and see what they were up against. She joined them on a short tour of some illegal camp sites.

One evening at the peak of his exasperation with the encampments, Bundy, who doesn’t consider public speaking among his strong suits, showed up at a Redding City Council meeting and described during the public comment period the illegal camps. He hoped to enlighten the public and city leaders about what was happening near his neighborhood.

Chief Paoletti was already well-aware of the encampments and their negative impact throughout Redding, not just Indian Hills and Linden Canyon.

“Citizens are being challenged all over the city with the encampments created by the transient population,” Paoletti said. “These illegal camps are creating blight in the community, increasing fire dangers and are increasing environmental damage in our open spaces.”

Paoletti empathizes with citizens who want the encampments banished immediately upon their discovery. He wishes that were possible, too, but he said it’s not that simple.

“It is extremely challenging because many of these illegal camps are on private property in which the owners are not taking an active role in preventing (the encampments),” Paoletti said.

Case in point, Paoletti said that just the Linden Canyon area alone has numerous different owners. The Redding Police Department is required to get “consent to enforce” permission from each land-owner before action can be taken. All that is fine, assuming the property-owners can be accurately identified.

Paoletti said that although on a map, it may appear as if property lines are clearly delineated, the actual story may be far different when you get on the ground. It might require GPS to correctly identify which plots belong to which land-owner.

In some ways, that’s the easier part. The final hurdle – getting the land-owners to comply – is more difficult.

“The owners often ignore the attempts to contact them by code enforcement and the police department,” Paoletti said.

All parties agree that one of the biggest roadblocks to eradicating the illegal camps is tracking down the property-owners and getting their cooperation.

Take the Linden Canyon area, located in Redding’s center, but also in a remote and isolated area.

Starman said the Linden Canyon land was subdivided 100 years ago, but never developed, due to the topography. Getting rid of encampments can be a multi-layered problematic process.

“It is very difficult to tell where the property lines are located,” Starman said. “There are over 20 individual property owners. Some of the property owners do not live in the community, and have little interest in the area.”

What’s more, Starman said, until recently most of the property was not properly posted with “no trespassing” signs, which makes it difficult for the police to intervene.

Finally, even when the property owners are found and identified, until quite recently, many of the property owners had still failed to provide the police department with consent-to-enforce forms. Without that, city departments cannot proceed.

But sometimes, the process works just the way it’s designed, such as when the city sent letters to the owners of three largest parcels about violations. After that, two of the land-owners hired Bundy to post notifications, clean and clear 18.95 acres of the transient camps.

Bundy and his team removed 10 tons of trash from that first parcel. They used heavy equipment to open trails to the camps and garbage piles. They then scooped up the trash and loaded it into a dumpster.

Some of the trash was hand-loaded and hauled out. And Bundy hired two homeless men to help, paying them with money and pizza.

The Indian Hills Association members walked the property, and sent photos of the cleared land to the city.

Soon after, the second largest property-owner also hired Bundy to clear out the transient camps, where he removed 7.65 tons of trash.

Between those two parcels, Bundy and his group cleared and cleaned about 25 acres of transient encampments.

But as victorious as it felt to get those parcels cleared and cleaned, many Indian Hills Association members remain astounded that it’s taken so long to eradicate illegal camps that were discovered a year ago, especially since so many problem-parcels remain untouched.

Added to Bundy’s wish list is his suggestion that private citizens who work to eradicate illegal encampments should receive free or reduced fees to dump what can literally add up to tons of trash.

But first things first.

On the one hand, what Bundy finds most unsettling is the realization that among what he estimates are 29 property-owners who have illegal transient encampments on their land in the combined Indian Hills and Linden Canyon area, just 16 have received letters from the city.

Bundy said that of those 16, just nine have been re-inspected to check for compliance. And Bundy said that of those nine, just two have yet to comply by having their property cleaned, cleared and posted.

But on the other hand, although in Bundy’s ideal scenario, all the illegal camps would be cleaned up by now, he credits Starman and Paoletti for working with him so he could clear some of the biggest, most blighted parcels. He also acknowledges both men for taking time to listen, and to continue to meet, talk and participate as a team with a united goal.

Likewise, while Starman acknowledges Bundy’s donation of a “tremendous” amount of personal time to cleanup and monitor the Indian Hills and Linden Canyon areas, Starman also credits the Redding Police Department and Redding’s Code Enforcement Division for working closely with Bundy and the subdivision neighbors.

While the clean-up of the Indian Hills subdivision and Linden Canyon are utmost on Bundy’s mind, Starman knows that those properties represent just two areas battling the issue of illegal transient encampments.

Other well-known, recurring encampments include those located off Lake Boulevard, as well in parts of Henderson Open Space and along trails, river banks, beneath bridges and on undeveloped land throughout the city.

Redding’s illegal transient camps have turned into a nightmare code enforcement version of Wackamole, where red-tagged illegal campers are evicted from one eradicated camp after another, often eventually returning to the original camps from which they were first removed.

For Paoletti, it’s not all bad news.

“This is not to say that we have not made progress,” he said. “We currently have consent to enforce for most of the properties, and are working to secure consent from the remaining owners. Typically we do not clean up private property, due to resource constraints, but we are setting priorities for the worst locations and will address them in sequence.”

For Redding City Manager Starman, the topic of the illegal encampments is a complex issue, one he said involves the entire community.

“The Redding Police Department and the city of Redding’s Code Enforcement Division typically deal with the symptoms (such as illegal camp sites),” he said.

“We, as a community, really need to take a hard look at the underlying problems, such as drug abuse, an inadequate mental health system, and insufficient jail space, to name a few.”

Finally, for Bundy, when he’s not thinking about the camps that remain in the ravine below his Indian Hills subdivision, he tries to look on the positive side.

Two parcels down, 20-something to go.

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Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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