Land of the lost

Comanche Creek shows great promise as a public park—but will that dream ever be realized?

Emily Alma stands on the small bridge on South Park Avenue that crosses Comanche Creek. Alma is part of a group working on a plan to turn city property there into a passive park.

Emily Alma stands on the small bridge on South Park Avenue that crosses Comanche Creek. Alma is part of a group working on a plan to turn city property there into a passive park.


Hidden on the south edge of Chico, on the way to Durham, lies a half-mile stretch of city-owned, tree-lined land along Comanche Creek. It’s naturally beautiful, but some of the ways it’s being used are revolting.

An array of wildlife, such as turkeys, otters, bobcats, ducks, foxes and coyotes, pass through its trees and lush foliage during different seasons. But for many years this land has mostly been the living space, toilet and dumping grounds for a constantly shifting population of trespassing homeless people who, because the property is fenced off, live in quiet isolation away from public view.

Now there’s hope for Comanche Creek. For more than a year, the city of Chico and the Southwest Chico Neighborhood Creeks, Parks and Open Space Action Group have been planning to transform the region into a passive public park with a pedestrian bridge, benches, picnic areas, bike paths and accessible viewing decks.

One of the group’s main participants, Emily Alma, who is also a long-time resident of the Riparia collective farm downstream, said the creek’s transient problems will be greatly reduced if the plan to make it a public park is realized.

“What we have in mind for a passive public park means fewer and fewer homeless people,” said Alma.

The city of Chico purchased the 15 acres in 2006 from Richard and Darlene Thomasson at a cost of $1.25 million. The intent was to preserve it as open space to protect its wildlife. The park would be open to the public for such uses as walks, picnics and sightseeing. As a city greenway, it would also be visited regularly by park rangers, trash collectors and other authorities, making it less attractive to the homeless.

But four years after the purchase, the plans are still in their infancy, reported Shawn Tillman, a senior planner with the city’s Housing & Neighborhood Services Department. Tillman and other city staff members have been meeting at least once a month with the creeks group since April 2009.

At a meeting last Wednesday (Sept. 22), Tillman explained that the group’s top priority is to create a master plan to address issues such as rules, parking, access, trash collection, bike paths, liability and invasive-vegetation management. The city and the action group are working together on a plan to save the money required to hire a professional consultant. Public review will be sought, though the format and timetable for the process have yet to be decided on.

Once the master plan is finalized, Tillman said, the city will tackle the subject of funding allocation.

Robin Huffman, advocacy director of the Butte Environmental Council, picks up refuse from an abandoned homeless camp during the organization’s annual creeks cleanup effort.


Comanche Creek, sometimes referred to as Edgar Slough, is no stranger to controversy. The region was the site of the proposed Otterson Drive extension—a decade-old plan that would have connected the Hegan Lane Business Park immediately south of the creek to South Park Avenue via a roadway through the property and a bridge over the waterway. The idea was to relieve future traffic issues in the area and to attract manufacturing businesses to the industrial park.

The project was approved by the Chico City Council’s conservative majority back in 2000 as an amendment to the 1994 General Plan. Environmentalists quickly organized a referendum, and voters repealed the project during a special election in 2001.

Fast forward to this past summer, when the council agreed to include a similar proposal—the West Park Avenue extension—as an option in the 2030 Chico General Plan. The vote split the council’s six-member liberal majority, with Councilmen Scott Gruendl, Andy Holcombe and Tom Nickell casting the dissenting votes. At this time, the project is strictly conceptual in nature. There’s no telling whether it will be realized.

In the meantime, Alma and other residents, and city staff, are moving forward with their monthly meetings to discuss the goals for the future of the property. “We want to show people that this is a valuable piece of property and not just an irrigation ditch,” Alma said during the recent gathering.

The creeks group plans to set dates for volunteer work days in November to remove invasive vegetation and mark the best access areas. They also will undoubtedly clean up after the homeless living there.

The environmental destruction these campers have caused was on full display Sept. 18, as a group of about a dozen volunteers participated in a cleanup of the site during the Butte Environmental Council’s annual Bidwell Parks and Creeks of Chico cleanup.

Altogether, about 150 people helped to dispose of tons of trash in the areas of Upper and Lower Bidwell Park, Lindo Channel, Big Chico Creek, Little Chico Creek, Sycamore Channel and Comanche Creek. Of them, Comanche Creek suffers the most severe environmental damage. That was clear during this reporter’s tour of the area. Scattered along well-worn dirt trails on both sides of the creek were heaps of tattered clothes, crates, broken furniture, liquor bottles, cigarette butts and, worst of all, many piles of human excrement. These are the remnants of what Chico Code Enforcement Officer John Rollo explained are the makeshift living rooms and pathways of the dispossessed.

The encampments are visited and superficially cleaned up every two or three weeks by members of an interdisciplinary team consisting of Code Enforcement, the Chico Police Department’s Target Team and park rangers.

The BEC team posted notices giving the campers 48 hours to remove their belongings and listing services that offer help with food, medical aid and shelter. They also stated that any property of reasonable value could be reclaimed at the Chico Police Department. As a further humanitarian gesture, cleanup volunteers often left behind items, such as sleeping bags, that looked as if they were used for daily necessities.

During the cleanup, Chicoan Michael Pike, whom Rollo calls “the unofficial keeper of Comanche Creek,” donned a wet suit and retrieved large piles of trash from the creek. Pike, who also lives at Riparia, says he has been performing this service weekly for several years.

Rollo explained that the cleanup is only temporary and that the homeless were expected to trickle back into the area in a matter of days.

“It’s not illegal to be homeless,” explained Rollo. “But if they didn’t break the laws about things like liquor, littering and public defecation, do you think we’d really have a problem?”