Leaders weigh park options

Written by Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat August 15, 2013 11:30 am

County and city officials said this week they are still discussing concerns about homeless people and probationers loitering in downtown Sonora’s Courthouse Square.

“It’s a catch-22,” said Sonora City Councilman Ron Stearn. “I don’t think there’s a quick fix that I know of.”

The city and county have been meeting since June to address the issue, which has fueled complaints from local government leaders and downtown business owners. They complain crowds milling about the park can hurt tourism.

Charities feeding homeless people in the park and the county Probation Department’s use of the park as a pick-up and drop-off point for work-release participants and Day Reporting Center programs are believed to be adding to the problem.

The park is also located near multiple city and county offices, two court buildings, several legal offices and a major public transportation stop. And an added wrinkle is the fact that it involves two jurisdictions, as the county owns the park in the middle of the city.

On Tuesday afternoon, park visitors consisted largely of out-of-towners on a tour-bus layover. Some areas around the benches, bus stop and power station were lightly littered with food packages and cigarette butts, though no groups were lingering. 

Sonora resident Brandon Valencia sat on a bench in the square surfing the Internet on his laptop. The Columbia College student said he regularly visits the park to access the free public Internet connection. It’s a “peaceful” spot, Valencia said, with “a good atmosphere.”

He does notice the occasional crowd, though Valencia said he doesn’t see the groups as particularly problematic.

“I don’t think it’s a big thing. It’s a nice place to hang out,” he said. “And it’s in the center of everything.”

Some proposals for addressing the park concerns have included changing the locations or permit process for charities feeding the homeless, and moving central downtown’s bus stop to another location.

Others have suggested moving a power outlet that some probationers use to charge ankle bracelets.

Stearn, the city’s longest-serving councilman, said it would be hard to move the station or bus stop.

City police officials have said complaints and calls for service at the park haven’t increased recently. County Probation Department officials say very few people in the program use the daily shuttles.

Sherri Brennan, who represents the city of Sonora on the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, said the issue isn’t a simple one that has a single cause or single solution.

And the dual jurisdictions make any of the solutions more complicated, she said, as it will require a coordinated effort between the city and county.

“We’re working on it, and I don’t want the public to be frustrated,” Brennan said. “I am hoping that we will have something definitive” in the coming weeks.