Dust-Up Over Homeless Camp Clean-Up

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

June 4, 2021

Homeless campsites on the Morro Bay Power Plant property were cleared out, andthere is disagreement as to how it was handled.

The clearing out of several homeless campsites on the Morro Bay Power Plant property has been met with criticism by some, with the local daily newspaper publishing online a critical story, which prompted a defensive response from the power plant’s corporate owner.

The dust-up began Tuesday, May 18 when representatives of plant owner Vistra Energy of Houston, Texas, posted the area around Morro Creek, and at Lila Keiser Park, giving notice to everyone camping in the area that they were trespassing and setting a date for them to remove their belongings.

The park and power plant sit on opposite sides of Morro Creek but both are owned by Vistra (the City leases the park space).
The creek and sand dune areas have been used by people dating back to the Chumash and Salinan Tribes, and in modern times have been used by numerous people, some of which have lived out there for more than, 20 years.

Vistra’s flyer, headlined “NOTICE” reads:
“Starting MAY 24, 2021 the property owner will remove all unauthorized items from this land.”
The notice has an overhead view of the power plant’s wooded northeast corner, bordered by Morro Creek and Hwy 1.
“In conjunction with Morro Bay Police,” the notice continues, “on Monday, May 24, any persons on this property will be provided notice of Trespass. All property and items left on this land on or after May 24 will be removed. All tents, structures, or other living arrangements will be torn down and removed.”

It ends with this ominous warning: “Clean up will begin May 24, 2021 — Remove any belongings you do not wish to surrender before May 24.”
The notice has no attribution, which would be required with an official notice from the City or police department. An official notice would also list the municipal code or the penal code number that gives them the authority to act. This notice has none of that.

On May 24, Vistra kept its promise and crews moved in on several encampments on the south side of the creek.
“This week,” Vistra spokeswoman Meranda Cohn said in an email to Estero Bay News, “Vistra culminated an operation to move about 20 to 30 people from a densely forested and unsecured area of the retired Morro Bay Power Plant, where they had been trespassing and living in various structures.
“We undertook the initiative because of the growing size of these camps and the long list of hazardous health, safety, security, and environmental conditions that developed.”

She added that on May 24, “Vistra Corporate Security, assisted by Morro Bay Police, told all who remained to gather their belongings and vacate.”
She added that “representatives for homeless outreach were on-site and offered resources for help. The company also allowed some of the homeless to return on Tuesday to load more belongings into a pickup truck.” Representatives with the Salvation Army and CAP-SLO, which runs homeless programs for SLO County, were on hand during the eviction.

In a May 25 news article published online, The Tribune had a different take on the situation.
“A large section of an illegal homeless encampment in Morro Bay was bulldozed Monday morning by Vistra Energy Corp., a Texas-based company that owns the plot of land containing the old Morro Bay Power Plant,” reads the lead paragraph of the story.
“The work began Monday morning at around 7:30 a.m., and residents described scrambling to gather whatever belongings they could before a front-end loader tore through random areas of the encampment.

“Trash, clothing, bedding, tents, needles and other paraphernalia at the site were plowed over and mixed into the soil while the front-end loader cut down trees and thick underbrush in the area around Morro Creek.
“Vistra was expected to continue the bulldozing on Tuesday.”

The story and an accompanying video of a homeless woman who was being uprooted goes on to question whether Vistra has the authority or needed permits to clear out vegetation and remove trees.

The clearly distressed woman, identified as Lisamarie Abbattista, told The Tribune, “We weren’t given basically any time to figure things out and find another place to live before Vistra came with the bulldozers. Now they (Morro Bay police) are arresting us if we go back down there, and Vistra is just bulldozing everyone’s homes down there, too.”

She noted that the police have issued warnings of an impending clean up with orders to clear out, but then they don’t show up.
The City has on a several occasions conducted similar cleanups, sometimes hiring the California Conservation Corps to assist in cleaning up trash in the dunes along the dirt segment of The Embarcadero leading to Morro Creek. The power plant owners — Dynegy before Vistra took over — have also funded the cleanups.

Each time it’s been done, it has been a traumatic experience for those who shelter in tents and ramshackle shelters amongst the thick growth of trees and thick undergrowth.
Trash accumulates, as there are no garbage dumpsters available, and there is nowhere to go to the bathroom after the City parks close at sunset. The

Harbor Department last summer did put out some portable toilets nearby for its RV camping spaces by the creek.
Vistra took exception to the Tribune’s article. “I’m touching base on the clean-up of the encampment on our Morro Bay plant property,” Cohn wrote in an email to EBN. “Unfortunately, the San Luis Obispo Tribune story was full of misrepresentations and false information. I encourage you to reach out to any of the agencies that have visited our site and inspected our work.”

She said they hired an “experienced contractor” to do the clean-up work and that contractor used “a small mini excavator to clear foliage.” That clearing was done, she said, to clear access for the crew to go in and clean up.

The Tribune quoted Lois Petty, identified as the site manager for SLO Bangers, a syringe exchange and overdose prevention program, who was apparently there too. She reportedly said the displaced people were left to sleep on the streets or find another encampment.
She goes on to accuse Vistra of trying to create “some sort of terror,” among the creek denizens.
“These are human beings,” Petty was quoted as saying, “and we criminalize the houseless as if it’s a crime to be houseless. It’s really disgusting what [Vistra] has done out here.”

The article asked a Fish and Wildlife game warden if they had any issues with what Vistra had done? State Fish & Wildlife has permitting jurisdiction over all creeks, streams and rivers in California, including Morro Creek.
Fish & Wildlife Game Warden, Lt. Matt Gil, was quoted as saying, “As long as they [Vistra] don’t cut down and remove large trees or move dirt in a way that could impact the streambed or bank, then that’s fine on our end.”

City officials were aware of what Vistra intended to do, even sending a police officer to guard everyone’s safety, but it wasn’t a City operation this time. EBN had asked City Manager Scott Collins about the matter after hearing from a local fellow that they’d bulldozed the forest. He apparently spoke with Vistra, prompting Cohn’s unsolicited email of explanation.

“As you may have seen,” she wrote, “the San Luis Obispo Tribune published a news story on the operation that was inaccurate in fact and context. The news story led to complaints or calls to City of Morro Bay Code Inspection, San Luis Obispo County Environmental Health Services, and the California Natural Resources Agency — Department of Fish and Wildlife. Representatives from these agencies requested and were granted access by Vistra Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to observe the site work and expressed no corrective or negative responses.”

The local Native Americans were also alarmed. “Vistra also allowed a representative of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, who had also read the Trib article and was concerned about ground disturbance and wanted to see the work. He was satisfied when informed the mini excavator work was completed and encouraged the continued clean-up.”

That entire creek area and up Hwy 41 is a known Native American archaeological area. Ancient human remains have even been found in the area in the past, once prompting the City to halt work on pounding a steel wall into the ground between the park’s west softball field and the creek to stop erosion.

The City will be trenching through the area and digging deep holes for lift stations in the general area for its Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) Project and must have archaeological monitors on hand in case they unearth anything. The forested area across the creek is near the site where the City plans on installing several wells to inject its treated effluent into the groundwater basin to recycle it and guard against seawater intrusion.

In any event the clean-up ordeal should be over for now. Cohn added, “The refuse vendor will finish gathering and hauling away debris this week.” Cohn said they spent about $20,000 on the cleanup.

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