Fires point to risky conditions in Ravenswood Triangle

Homeless encampments threaten protected areas, endangered species

A homeless encampment in a habitat restoration area is one of an estimated 30 in the marshy Ravenswood Triangle area, bounded by Adams Drive, Willow Road, Bayfront Expressway and University Avenue. Fires, human waste and garbage connected to the camps are putting endangered wildlife, nearby buildings and water quality at risk. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

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Fires point to risky conditions in Ravenswood Triangle

Homeless encampments threaten protected areas, endangered species

A homeless encampment in a habitat restoration area is one of an estimated 30 in the marshy Ravenswood Triangle area, bounded by Adams Drive, Willow Road, Bayfront Expressway and University Avenue. Fires, human waste and garbage connected to the camps are putting endangered wildlife, nearby buildings and water quality at risk. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

The brown and white sign along Bayfront Expressway in Menlo Park clearly describes the purpose of the open marshland: "Habitat Restoration Area — Environmentally Sensitive Area. Keep Out." But the 60-acre site known as the Ravenswood Triangle is anything but pristine. This year alone, the grass-and-marsh area, most of which is supposed to be protected habitat for endangered species, has been besieged by 23 fires. Since 2017, there have been 77 blazes, according to a report by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

The Ravenswood Triangle is bordered by Bayfront Expressway, University Avenue and Willow Road in Menlo Park. Courtesy Google Maps.

The area, which is bounded by Adams Drive, Willow Road, Bayfront Expressway and University Avenue, is littered with debris: mounds of rusting bicycle parts, tires, toilet paper, discarded clothing, boxes, makeshift tents of cardboard, wood and plastic, and other detritus of human habitation. Pit toilets filled with human waste dot the green reeds and tall, tawny grasses hide trip wires that guard the entrance into the approximately 30 illegal homeless encampments, some hidden among shrubs and others dotting the landscape with bright blue tarps and flapping sheets of plastic.

Cars whizzed by on bustling Bayfront Expressway to the Dumbarton Bridge, down University Avenue and up Willow Road on May 22 as firefighters worked hotspots from a 10-acre fire. A flock of geese poked their heads up out of the reeds, watching intently as crews in yellow vests doused the smoke with hoses and a dozer cut fire breaks to prevent future fires from spreading quickly.

Offices and businesses at the Menlo Business Park, just steps away, abut the Triangle, and just beyond them are homes. Black scars across the land showed how close the flames came to licking the sides of the warehouses and buildings.

Commuters stuck in traffic get a ringside seat to the happenings in the marsh, but few likely know about the area's protected status and the pollution that seeps into the ground or that mingles with rainwater during winter storms and is carried away into San Francisco Bay. Pumps drain the area to keep it from flooding the business park — a concession after a long legal battle to protect the park from flooding during the storms.

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The pollution being generated at the Triangle is a direct violation of the federal Clean Water Act, which prohibits so-called nonpoint source pollution — pollution that can enter waterways and storm drains from non-industrial sources where the point of discharge is more diffuse and not from a specific source such as a business.

But who takes responsibility for the mess and environmental degradation — and the safety of the homeless, whom fire officials fear could be injured or killed in a fast-moving fire?

Facebook headquarters can be seen behind scorched land in the open area bordered by Bayfront Expressway, University Avenue and Willow Road in Menlo Park on June 29. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Menlo Park fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman has been trying to get answers. The property is a patchwork of ownership and easements, among them San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SamTrans), the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), Pacific Gas & Electric, Facebook and the Kavanaugh-O'Brien tract.

The number of fires has been rising over the past few years, according to a May report from the fire district on the "Encampment Area on Bayfront from Willow, to University Ave." In 2017, the area had four fires. There were 19 blazes in 2018 and 31 in 2019.

About six weeks ago, Menlo Park Mayor Cecilia Taylor convened a subcommittee to address the issue after the May 22 blaze threatened nearby commercial structures. Finding solutions isn't easy, however. The Triangle and its homeless encampments are a thorny issue, said leaders of environmental groups.

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The welfare of wildlife and the health of Baylands ecosystems is pitted against the very real human needs of people who have become homeless mainly due to a lack of affordable and low-income housing, health and mental health issues. As one environmental advocate put it, no one wants to simply kick the homeless out with no place for them to go.

Scorched earth and dead plants on train tracks in the open area bordered by Bayfront Expressway, University Avenue and Willow Road in Menlo Park on June 29. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Yet, their continued presence is compromising the health of the estuary and violating federal law. The site is not only within the boundary of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wildlife recovery for the protected salt marsh harvest mouse and the California (Ridgway's) clapper rail, it is also adjacent to the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The Triangle's wetlands, now mostly dry, are fed by the Ravenswood Slough, which is connected to San Francisco Bay and adjacent wetlands areas.

Rhonda Coffman, Menlo Park deputy community development director, said in an email that public agencies such as Caltrans and SamTrans are responsible for Clean Water Act compliance.

"If we have information about encampments occurring on private property, we can investigate this further in regard to the monitoring (of) nonpoint source pollution or potential Clean Water Act violations," she said.

Caltrans is the largest property owner. The agency purchased about 47 acres in the Triangle for about $350,000 as part of 200 acres of wetlands on both sides of the bay for constructing the Dumbarton Bridge. The purchase was to offset loss of wetlands and tidal marsh taken for the bridge approaches, according to a 1988 mitigation report analysis of San Francisco Bay tideland restoration projects by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

Caltrans further noted its responsibility last week.

"It, in part, compensates and provides habitat in perpetuity for the salt marsh harvest mouse and other various animals that would use the habitat," Caltrans District 4 said in an email through spokesman Alejandro Lopez.

As for what Caltrans is doing to protect its property from human habitation, fire, ecosystem degradation and nonpoint source pollution, Lopez said the site is not being cleaned during the coronavirus pandemic so that Caltrans' workers are not put in danger.

He did not respond to follow-up questions about why Caltrans allowed the encampments on its property far prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, nor did Caltrans respond to a question regarding the department's requirements for cleanup under the Clean Water Act and compliance with the Statewide Storm Water Permit and Waste Discharge requirements. The statewide 2015-19 Trash Provisions of the Water Quality Control Plan for Inland Surface Waters, Enclosed Bays, and Estuaries of California sets forth requirements for Caltrans to prevent significant trash discharge that could impact waterways through storm runoff.

An encampment in the open area bordered by Bayfront Expressway, University Avenue and Willow Road in Menlo Park on June 29. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

On Feb. 13, 2019, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board voted unanimously to approve a "cease and desist" order against Caltrans to speed up trash removal through the year 2026 from 8,800 identified acres or face $25,000-a-day fines. Caltrans must also address trash in its other locations, identified by visual assessments to be conducted through 2030, according to the order. It's not clear if the Triangle is among the identified acreage.

In a January 2019 letter to the San Francisco Bay Regional Quality Control Board regarding the order, environmental advocates San Francisco Baykeeper noted the reticence of public enforcement agencies to clash with social welfare issues:

"There is currently little incentive for Caltrans to enhance lines of communication with local governments or social service providers, let alone conduct cleanups of active homeless encampments — and local communities refuse to patrol or enforce illegal camping on Caltrans ROWs due to real or perceived lack of jurisdiction. In cities with the most acute homeless crises, Caltrans ROWs and urban creeks have become de-facto homeless shelters," the letter states.

"Unfortunately, homelessness lies at the heart of some of the most serious water quality issues in our region. If the Water Board is serious about trash management, and restoring or reducing harm to urban creeks, permits must require greater action to compel enforcement of existing laws related to illegal camping and dumping, while increasing the availability of social services and coordination with providers."

Keith Lichten, division chief for the Regional Water Quality Control Board's watershed management division, said the agency issues water-discharge permits that require trash control. The permits allow municipalities, industries and agencies to drain water through storm drains and pumping during rains or the course of their operations. The permits give the control board leverage for the permitees to manage their trash and hazardous waste.

An encampment is surrounded by tall foliage in the open area bordered by Bayfront Expressway, University Avenue and Willow Road in Menlo Park on June 29. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

When it comes to addressing homeless populations, the water board is looking to collaborate with agencies and city staff. Lichten said his agency is working collaboratively with Menlo Park to address the issue. The problem is not isolated to Menlo Park but stretches throughout the Bay Area, he said. Some cities are taking creative approaches.

"The city of Oakland looked at a combination of leased land, Caltrans property and the Kaiser Convention Center to create community cabins," he said. The city offers limited services such as portable toilets and washing stations and works with nonprofit organizations to provide services.

East Palo Alto has addressed one aspect of homelessness by using a municipal location for a "safe parking" program where people in recreational vehicles receive vouchers to discharge their waste tanks at a legitimate station, and have access to portable toilets, showers and social service programs to find housing and address other needs. The program helped reduce thousands of gallons of waste and trash from the street and storm drain.

In Menlo Park, Coffman said a coordinated homeless outreach has been ongoing by multiple agencies and is conducted several times each week with the goal of connecting them to support services and resources to get them into stable housing.

Taylor, Menlo Park's mayor, said the new subcommittee on the Triangle includes herself, Councilman Ray Mueller, city staff, Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and nonprofit service providers, including the county Health Department, Ravenswood Family Clinic, Project WeHope, LifeMoves and pastors from local churches.

On Monday, the subcommittee met to discuss ways to protect the environment and the health and safety of the encampment dwellers. Members hope to streamline communication regarding dangerous situations so that first responders and firefighters can gain easy access. Potentially, they might add amenities such as wash stations and portable toilets as short-term solutions, she said.

"My goal is to have no one living there at the end of the year. Where they would live is a big question," Taylor said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Schapelhouman, who said he is always concerned about the safety of the encampment dwellers and surrounding community, said on Tuesday that he is pleased with the direction the new subcommittee is taking.

"There are more resources dedicated to this than anything I've ever seen. But what does that translate to? At some point talk needs to stop and action needs to take over," he said. "At the end of the day, it's a fire risk; it's a life-safety risk."

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Fires point to risky conditions in Ravenswood Triangle

Homeless encampments threaten protected areas, endangered species

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Jul 10, 2020, 11:38 am

The brown and white sign along Bayfront Expressway in Menlo Park clearly describes the purpose of the open marshland: "Habitat Restoration Area — Environmentally Sensitive Area. Keep Out." But the 60-acre site known as the Ravenswood Triangle is anything but pristine. This year alone, the grass-and-marsh area, most of which is supposed to be protected habitat for endangered species, has been besieged by 23 fires. Since 2017, there have been 77 blazes, according to a report by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

The area, which is bounded by Adams Drive, Willow Road, Bayfront Expressway and University Avenue, is littered with debris: mounds of rusting bicycle parts, tires, toilet paper, discarded clothing, boxes, makeshift tents of cardboard, wood and plastic, and other detritus of human habitation. Pit toilets filled with human waste dot the green reeds and tall, tawny grasses hide trip wires that guard the entrance into the approximately 30 illegal homeless encampments, some hidden among shrubs and others dotting the landscape with bright blue tarps and flapping sheets of plastic.

Cars whizzed by on bustling Bayfront Expressway to the Dumbarton Bridge, down University Avenue and up Willow Road on May 22 as firefighters worked hotspots from a 10-acre fire. A flock of geese poked their heads up out of the reeds, watching intently as crews in yellow vests doused the smoke with hoses and a dozer cut fire breaks to prevent future fires from spreading quickly.

Offices and businesses at the Menlo Business Park, just steps away, abut the Triangle, and just beyond them are homes. Black scars across the land showed how close the flames came to licking the sides of the warehouses and buildings.

Commuters stuck in traffic get a ringside seat to the happenings in the marsh, but few likely know about the area's protected status and the pollution that seeps into the ground or that mingles with rainwater during winter storms and is carried away into San Francisco Bay. Pumps drain the area to keep it from flooding the business park — a concession after a long legal battle to protect the park from flooding during the storms.

The pollution being generated at the Triangle is a direct violation of the federal Clean Water Act, which prohibits so-called nonpoint source pollution — pollution that can enter waterways and storm drains from non-industrial sources where the point of discharge is more diffuse and not from a specific source such as a business.

But who takes responsibility for the mess and environmental degradation — and the safety of the homeless, whom fire officials fear could be injured or killed in a fast-moving fire?

Menlo Park fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman has been trying to get answers. The property is a patchwork of ownership and easements, among them San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SamTrans), the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), Pacific Gas & Electric, Facebook and the Kavanaugh-O'Brien tract.

The number of fires has been rising over the past few years, according to a May report from the fire district on the "Encampment Area on Bayfront from Willow, to University Ave." In 2017, the area had four fires. There were 19 blazes in 2018 and 31 in 2019.

About six weeks ago, Menlo Park Mayor Cecilia Taylor convened a subcommittee to address the issue after the May 22 blaze threatened nearby commercial structures. Finding solutions isn't easy, however. The Triangle and its homeless encampments are a thorny issue, said leaders of environmental groups.

The welfare of wildlife and the health of Baylands ecosystems is pitted against the very real human needs of people who have become homeless mainly due to a lack of affordable and low-income housing, health and mental health issues. As one environmental advocate put it, no one wants to simply kick the homeless out with no place for them to go.

Yet, their continued presence is compromising the health of the estuary and violating federal law. The site is not only within the boundary of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wildlife recovery for the protected salt marsh harvest mouse and the California (Ridgway's) clapper rail, it is also adjacent to the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The Triangle's wetlands, now mostly dry, are fed by the Ravenswood Slough, which is connected to San Francisco Bay and adjacent wetlands areas.

Rhonda Coffman, Menlo Park deputy community development director, said in an email that public agencies such as Caltrans and SamTrans are responsible for Clean Water Act compliance.

"If we have information about encampments occurring on private property, we can investigate this further in regard to the monitoring (of) nonpoint source pollution or potential Clean Water Act violations," she said.

Caltrans is the largest property owner. The agency purchased about 47 acres in the Triangle for about $350,000 as part of 200 acres of wetlands on both sides of the bay for constructing the Dumbarton Bridge. The purchase was to offset loss of wetlands and tidal marsh taken for the bridge approaches, according to a 1988 mitigation report analysis of San Francisco Bay tideland restoration projects by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

Caltrans further noted its responsibility last week.

"It, in part, compensates and provides habitat in perpetuity for the salt marsh harvest mouse and other various animals that would use the habitat," Caltrans District 4 said in an email through spokesman Alejandro Lopez.

As for what Caltrans is doing to protect its property from human habitation, fire, ecosystem degradation and nonpoint source pollution, Lopez said the site is not being cleaned during the coronavirus pandemic so that Caltrans' workers are not put in danger.

He did not respond to follow-up questions about why Caltrans allowed the encampments on its property far prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, nor did Caltrans respond to a question regarding the department's requirements for cleanup under the Clean Water Act and compliance with the Statewide Storm Water Permit and Waste Discharge requirements. The statewide 2015-19 Trash Provisions of the Water Quality Control Plan for Inland Surface Waters, Enclosed Bays, and Estuaries of California sets forth requirements for Caltrans to prevent significant trash discharge that could impact waterways through storm runoff.

On Feb. 13, 2019, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board voted unanimously to approve a "cease and desist" order against Caltrans to speed up trash removal through the year 2026 from 8,800 identified acres or face $25,000-a-day fines. Caltrans must also address trash in its other locations, identified by visual assessments to be conducted through 2030, according to the order. It's not clear if the Triangle is among the identified acreage.

In a January 2019 letter to the San Francisco Bay Regional Quality Control Board regarding the order, environmental advocates San Francisco Baykeeper noted the reticence of public enforcement agencies to clash with social welfare issues:

"There is currently little incentive for Caltrans to enhance lines of communication with local governments or social service providers, let alone conduct cleanups of active homeless encampments — and local communities refuse to patrol or enforce illegal camping on Caltrans ROWs due to real or perceived lack of jurisdiction. In cities with the most acute homeless crises, Caltrans ROWs and urban creeks have become de-facto homeless shelters," the letter states.

"Unfortunately, homelessness lies at the heart of some of the most serious water quality issues in our region. If the Water Board is serious about trash management, and restoring or reducing harm to urban creeks, permits must require greater action to compel enforcement of existing laws related to illegal camping and dumping, while increasing the availability of social services and coordination with providers."

Keith Lichten, division chief for the Regional Water Quality Control Board's watershed management division, said the agency issues water-discharge permits that require trash control. The permits allow municipalities, industries and agencies to drain water through storm drains and pumping during rains or the course of their operations. The permits give the control board leverage for the permitees to manage their trash and hazardous waste.

When it comes to addressing homeless populations, the water board is looking to collaborate with agencies and city staff. Lichten said his agency is working collaboratively with Menlo Park to address the issue. The problem is not isolated to Menlo Park but stretches throughout the Bay Area, he said. Some cities are taking creative approaches.

"The city of Oakland looked at a combination of leased land, Caltrans property and the Kaiser Convention Center to create community cabins," he said. The city offers limited services such as portable toilets and washing stations and works with nonprofit organizations to provide services.

East Palo Alto has addressed one aspect of homelessness by using a municipal location for a "safe parking" program where people in recreational vehicles receive vouchers to discharge their waste tanks at a legitimate station, and have access to portable toilets, showers and social service programs to find housing and address other needs. The program helped reduce thousands of gallons of waste and trash from the street and storm drain.

In Menlo Park, Coffman said a coordinated homeless outreach has been ongoing by multiple agencies and is conducted several times each week with the goal of connecting them to support services and resources to get them into stable housing.

Taylor, Menlo Park's mayor, said the new subcommittee on the Triangle includes herself, Councilman Ray Mueller, city staff, Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and nonprofit service providers, including the county Health Department, Ravenswood Family Clinic, Project WeHope, LifeMoves and pastors from local churches.

On Monday, the subcommittee met to discuss ways to protect the environment and the health and safety of the encampment dwellers. Members hope to streamline communication regarding dangerous situations so that first responders and firefighters can gain easy access. Potentially, they might add amenities such as wash stations and portable toilets as short-term solutions, she said.

"My goal is to have no one living there at the end of the year. Where they would live is a big question," Taylor said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Schapelhouman, who said he is always concerned about the safety of the encampment dwellers and surrounding community, said on Tuesday that he is pleased with the direction the new subcommittee is taking.

"There are more resources dedicated to this than anything I've ever seen. But what does that translate to? At some point talk needs to stop and action needs to take over," he said. "At the end of the day, it's a fire risk; it's a life-safety risk."

Comments

It’s a mess
Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jul 10, 2020 at 11:42 pm
It’s a mess, Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jul 10, 2020 at 11:42 pm
1 person likes this

Not one mention of the weed grows, 10 foot waste pits, huge drug use, thefts attributable to the residents, the rapes, shootings, stabbing, the arsons, vehicle thefts, bike thefts, shabbiest, ticks, poison oak, infections etc. Caltrans, Chp, Caltrain, private property owners and the feds have all been passing the buck. The property owners have allowed this to happen. It’s lawlessness. Children. Some county services only brings food and enables people to live out there.


resident
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 11, 2020 at 1:55 pm
resident, Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 11, 2020 at 1:55 pm
6 people like this

Are there any homeless shelters in this part of San Mateo County that can help these people? I don't think we can morally or legally move kick the people out of this location when there is nowhere for them to go.


Steve Taffee
Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jul 11, 2020 at 2:53 pm
Steve Taffee, Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jul 11, 2020 at 2:53 pm
6 people like this

Seems to me that the article is incomplete since the reporter (apparently) did not attempt to interview any of the homeless living in this encampment. Their perspective might help us understand the situation more completely.


It’s a mess
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 11, 2020 at 6:03 pm
It’s a mess, Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 11, 2020 at 6:03 pm
4 people like this

There are shelters. But all these agencies talk a big game until it’s time to do something. All these people don’t want to be housed. The reporter should go out there and meet the homeless drug addicts and mentally ill. Nor did the reporter talk to law enforcement who is stuck picking up the pieces and who are powerless to enforce anything. I bet you the mayor has never been out there. She is good at talking and let others do the dirty work


It’s a mess
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 11, 2020 at 6:05 pm
It’s a mess, Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 11, 2020 at 6:05 pm
Like this comment

Or the reporter should talk to the line firefighters. The chief only knows what he knows


Peter Carpenter
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 11, 2020 at 8:30 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 11, 2020 at 8:30 pm
4 people like this

The Fire Chief is probably the only public official who has first hand knowledge of what is going on in this area. The is no daylight between the line firefighters and the Fire Chief about what happens in a response to this area.

The Fire Chief has been the most informed and the most outspoken on the hazards created by these homeless encampments.


It’s a mess
Menlo Park: other
on Jul 12, 2020 at 9:32 pm
It’s a mess, Menlo Park: other
on Jul 12, 2020 at 9:32 pm
2 people like this

Peter your wrong. You have no first hand knowledge. Stop being a fan boy and don’t comment on something you have no first hand knowledge of. It is the frontline responders that truly understand The situation. The one that fight the fires, treat the ill/injured, make the arrests etc. This has been going on for years. None has taken responsibility. You know how I know? Because us first responders have been yelling and screaming for those in power to take responsibility. But rather people like you would rather argue about the brown act. Mark my words this will be difficult to solve and no one has the fortitude


Peter Carpenter
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 13, 2020 at 7:30 am
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 13, 2020 at 7:30 am
6 people like this

Mess - Thank you for taking the time to comment.

As for my knowledge base - I served three years as a very frontline firefighter (USFS Smokejumper) with close up and personal experience of these types of non-structural fires and 16 years as a MPFPD Director.

The Fire Chief has been the one public official who has been spoken out repeatedly on the dangers and challenges of the brush bound homeless encampment. No one else seems to care.

It is only a matter of time before someone is badly burned or killed in one of these recurring brush fires.


Menlo Voter.
Menlo Park: other
on Jul 13, 2020 at 9:37 am
Menlo Voter., Menlo Park: other
on Jul 13, 2020 at 9:37 am
4 people like this

It's a mess:

I think you and Peter are saying the same thing, other than your disagreement about the Fire Chief. The powers that be don't want to do what it will take to get rid of this problem.

The state needs to change the laws so that the mentally ill can be placed in institutions where they belong and where they can be cared for. They are incapable of properly caring for themselves. That's why they are homeless.

The state needs to reopen or open new mental institutions to house the mentally ill for the reasons stated above.

The state needs to force homeless drug addicts and alcoholics into treatment/housing for the same reasons as stated above.

Will any of that happen? NO! Because neither the politicians nor the citizens of this state have the balls to do what is necessary. They're afraid of "infringing on the rights" of the homeless. Never mind the fact that they and we have a duty as human beings to care for those that can't care for themselves.

Instead of doing what is necessary the politicians and citizens will do a lot of talking and virtue signaling and accomplish nothing. Even after someone dies.


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