The Garberville Town Square has received a number of attractive additions in recent years, such as two 39-foot-long arbors set at right angles to each other and adorned with climbing plants; a 12,000-pound blueschist boulder with a children’s slide carved into it; shade trees; commemorative bricks that serve as paving stones; and LED lighting to give the area a magical feel during nighttime events.
Last week the square got some new visuals that were decidedly less pleasant: An orange construction fence running around its perimeter that’s meant to block access to the privately held square; and no trespassing signs.
The square’s transformation from a community space to a space that’s off-limits happened late last Thursday afternoon. But the decision to fence it was made the day before in a unanimous vote taken by the town square’s governing board during its regular monthly meeting.
“It was a heart-wrenching decision for us,” one of the board members, Nancy George, related. “When we made that vote I was sick to my stomach,” added Donna King, another board member.
The decision was not at the board’s instigation. Instead, it was made in response to a six-page petition bearing the signatures of 82 community members, many of them local business owners, that called for “a temporary shutdown of the Garberville Town Square until a solution is found to make the area safe and respectable.”
“The town square has become an unsafe environment,” asserted the petition, brought before the board by Josh Sweet, owner of the Jacob Garber Square Building that borders the town square. “It has become a local hub for drug dealing and a haven for aggressive dogs and people who don’t respect the town or its ideals.”
“There have been multiple reports of fighting, all-night parties with loud music, use of alcohol and drugs and all-around bad behavior,” the petition continued. “We can and will make it what we had all dreamed it would be but until then we demand this action.”
Along with the petition, the board was presented with a written statement from longtime Southern Humboldt resident Ernie Branscomb. Branscomb wrote that a number of years ago, back when the square was just an idea, he argued along with some other folks that what was then just a gravel lot should continue to be used for parking.
Instead, a group of citizens bought the lot from Chris Brannan in 2002 for $220,000 and started laying the groundwork for a town square. Branscomb acknowledged that the effort proved a success. “The park [today] is beautiful and well-constructed. It is an asset to the community in many ways.”
But he said warnings that the square would become a magnet for undesirables have proven true.
“We complained that the park would become an attractive nuisance, a place for bums, derelicts of society, dogs and drug dealers to congregate and would force out the kinds of people and children that the park was intended for.”
According to a Memorandum of Understanding with Sweet that was drawn up last week by the board, the owner of the property, the closure is for a two-month period only. “The fence will be removed in 60 days regardless,” the agreement states, making clear that Nov. 10 is the date by which the fence must come down.
The MOU also says that during the temporary closure period the fence would be removed for events, such as the weekly Farmers Market and the upcoming Harvest Fiesta. The cost of putting up and taking down the fence and of maintaining it would be borne by Sweet, the MOU adds.
When contacted late last week, Sweet declined to be interviewed. He later issued a statement that used similar wording to the petition in describing the reason for the temporary closure. The statement also warned that, “anyone who is not authorized to be [on the square] will be trespassing and prosecuted under the law.”
Board members said the closure was not influenced by the fact that, several hours prior to last Wednesday’s meeting, a man was badly beaten on the square—so badly beaten that he had to be transported out of the area to receive treatment.
“That was just a coincidental thing,” King said. She added that the petition had been placed on the agenda for last week’s meeting, which took place on the square, several days prior to the beating.
Of course, the fact that the petition request predated the beating doesn’t mean that the beating didn’t play a role in the board’s decision. Board member Robie Tenorio, who first found the blood trail on the square that led Sheriff’s deputies to the Garberville home of the two alleged attackers, said that while the beating wasn’t what persuaded the board to agree to close the square, it did confirm that the closure was necessary.
“We all were aware that the beating had taken place. It was an exclamation mark on how bad things are in town,” she said.
“We were pressured into it by the bad behavior of people [in general],” she went on. “We want to work with everyone else and find a solution. We don’t want the square to be contributing to the problem.”
Vagrancy in Garberville is obviously not limited to the town square. But the consensus on the board, and apparently out in the community as well, is that the square has developed into a hub for troublemakers.
“It’s become a gathering spot,” was the way Susan Mazur, a board member who was not present at last week’s meeting, put it.
“There’s bad behavior throughout the town, not just at the town square. But the people who signed the petition feel the town square is enabling a lot of it. And at night the square is out of control,” chimed in Tenorio.
Local businessman Steve Dazey, a signatory to the petition who has donated labor and roughly $4,000 toward the town square over the years, called the petition request “a wake-up call for the board.”
“They definitely needed to do something,” he said.
Like Dazey, Peg Anderson, who owns the old Chautauqua building on the square, signed the petition. “Because the square is dominated by loud behavior and drinking and drug [use], people are frightened,” she said. Throw in people getting accosted and periodic outbreaks of fighting, and “it got to be too much.”
“The fence is a statement,” she said. “We need to relook at this and start a conversation.”
Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle Fennell, meantime, called the board’s decision to close the square “dramatic,” as well as “practical and symbolic.”
Saying that the square was meant to be “a peaceful, beautiful place,” she said: “Maybe it’s time to think about how to keep that vision alive.”
“Like Steve Dazey, I support the town square and I’ve donated money to them,” she added.
In terms of what can be done to make the square a better place once it reopens, Fennell said she’s been asked by a number of community members to play a role in helping the town find solutions—particularly in terms of facilitating meetings.
“I like to bring people together. I’d be happy to try and put something together [here],” she said.
“This isn’t about the homeless or about transients. It’s about the community asserting its value and standards,” she continued. “[They’re saying] enough is enough. Bad behavior is not acceptable.”
At the moment, there aren’t a lot of specific proposals about how to improve things on the square. However, the MOU does float one idea: That those who signed the petition pay “a monthly donation” to hire a security officer who would patrol not just the town square but all of Garberville.
Even though it was a painful decision, board members expressed the hope that the temporary closure would lead to positive changes. “We don’t want to be part of the problem. We want to be part of the solution,” was the way George put it.
They also indicated that getting others involved in coming up with solutions should take some of the pressure off the board. “Now it will be more of a community effort rather than just on the shoulders of the board,” Mazur remarked.