A “state property” sign and large boulders appeared Tuesday morning at the entrances to homeless camps off Stockton Road in Sonora.
Caltrans spokesman Rick Estrada confirmed the agency installed the boulders and the sign that reads, “State property: Any person removing or molesting same will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” due to recent issues associated with the camps.
“Violations were taking place, and the sign alerts people that this is the public right of way, where such activities are not allowed,” Estrada stated in an email to an inquiry made by The Union Democrat.
Estrada stated violations included piles of garbage that Caltrans recently had to remove as part of routine maintenance on Stockton Road, which is part of State Highway 49.
James Bayliss, a homeless man who lives in the camps, had been placing full bags of trash in the same spot as the sign over the weekend while cleaning up the mess left by others who recently moved out of the area after they received warnings about unlawful camping from Sonora police earlier this month.
Bayliss estimated Sunday that he had gathered nearly 40 full bags of trash, each weighing as much as 75 pounds.
The boulders were placed at a separate entrance to the camps because of visible tire marks indicating that people had been driving vehicles off the road and onto a trail leading to the camps, said California Highway Patrol Officer Faustino Pulido, a spokesman for the agency’s Sonora-area office in Jamestown.
“The trail that was there for a long time has now been widened, and people have been driving their vehicles in there, which is an illegal encroachment,” Pulido said.
A CHP officer and sergeant accompanied Caltrans workers to the site about 11 a.m. and made sure there were no vehicles that needed to exit before they installed the boulders, Pulido said.
Pulido added that the “state property” sign means that people can no longer park along the road at that section for more than 72 hours or have vehicles for sale.
A number of people have been camping on the land east of Stockton Road for years.
Sonora Police Officer Curtis Hankins issued more than a dozen cease-and-desist notices to homeless people who were camping on the land on Feb. 10. The notices gave them five days to clear out, or they could face a series of escalating fines and possible jail time.
The notices were issued under an ordinance passed by the Sonora City Council in September that outlawed camping on public or private property without the owner’s permission.
Mayor Pro-Tem Jim Garaventa was the only member of the council who voted against the ordinance, because he felt that it criminalizes being homeless.
Bayliss has said he’s been living on the property for more than five years, including the past three with his brother at a clean and orderly camp farther off the road. He was arrested at his camp in August and charged with three misdemeanors including suspicion of trespassing, removing vegetation without the owner’s permission and resisting arrest.
When asked who owns the land where most people camp east of Stockton Road, law enforcement and city officials typically respond that they aren’t exactly certain due to the number of parcels with separate owners and lack of physical markers in the area.
The cease-and-desist notice that Bayliss received from Hankins on Feb. 10 had boxes checked off for unlawful camping on both private and public property.
A parcel map provided by the Tuolumne County Assessor’s Office appears to show the land in question is owned by Ben Cassinetto, who lives in Knights Ferry in Stanislaus County.
Cassinetto owns 12 acres that abut the northern edge of the 25-acre Von Eichel property, which is owned by the City of Sonora.
The city is currently seeking interest from potential partners to develop the Von Eichel property. Previous attempts to build a Holiday Inn hotel and conference center on the land ultimately failed due to a lack of investors.
Cassinetto said in a telephone interview on Monday that he had met with the Sonora Police Department months ago and given his permission to remove any people who were camping on his property.
“I gave permission to go in there whenever they want to and run those people out,” Cassinetto said. “We’re pretty concerned about fire and safety issues.”
Sonora Police Chief Turu VanderWiel said he had no contact with Caltrans about the sign and boulders that the agency installed Tuesday morning at the entrance to the homeless camps.
“That was something they initiated on their own,” he said.
VanderWiel said the department has yet to issue any fines over the camping ordinance, because most people who receive warnings comply before it gets to that point. He added that charges of trespassing on private property are separate from the ordinance and can be requested by the owner.
Though several cease-and-desist notices were issued for the camping ordinance on Feb. 10, VanderWiel said that there’s no specified time or date when an officer will return to issue any fine for people who are still there.
“We don’t follow-up on the exact deadline, but when we have time to follow-up, and if it’s the same situation, we’ll take action,” VanderWiel said. “We’re not planning any major citation sweep. Ideally, we would work it out through cooperation prior to having to take actual criminal action by issuing citations.”
VanderWiel said he wanted to reiterate that the camping ordinance is only something to help the department work with private-property owners and the greater community to address issues that seem to be more prevalent at the moment.
He has also formed a “community engagement team” involving representatives of agencies that provide services for the homeless who sometimes ride along with officers and attempt to connect people with resources that can help them.
“It’s a community issue, and we have to deal with it as such,” VanderWiel said.