After months of planning and preparation, the city of Lompoc is set to move forward with its cleanup of the Santa Ynez Riverbed — a task that will involve removing all homeless people who are living in the dried-up waterway.

The Lompoc City Council on Tuesday night voted 5-0 to formally approve a plan to remove all encampments from the riverbed, along with a resolution to provide $20,305 to the Lompoc Police Department to cover staffing costs required to implement the first phase of the plan. The total cost of the cleanup is still undetermined, according to city staff, but it could end up being hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Tuesday's meeting was the first for new Lompoc City Manager Jim Throop, who took his oath of office during the gathering, but much of the discussion on the night centered on the riverbed and the homeless people who live there.

Lompoc Police Chief Pat Walsh, who first proposed a cleanup of the riverbed on Feb. 6, started the discussion early in Tuesday’s meeting when he introduced Officer Mauricio Calderon, who was assigned this summer as the department’s homeless liaison. While Walsh pointed out that Calderon has already helped convince several people to leave the riverbed, the chief noted that there was still anywhere from 60 to 70 encampments within the riverbed that runs along the city's eastern and northern borders.

Still, he said there have been positive indicators.

“It’s working,” Walsh said of this summer’s increased riverbed outreach, which has been led by Calderon. “The fact that we were not in the riverbed before, it was easy to hide down there.”

According to the plan approved at Tuesday’s meeting, the Police Department will begin serving 30-day evacuation notices to riverbed inhabitants starting this past week; city staff and partner agencies will begin setting up a triage center as soon as Friday at River Park; and all people will be removed along with whatever belongings they wish to keep before crews go in to clear out all debris.

Deputy City Manager Laura Dubbels led much of the discussion regarding the triage center, which will be staged for a total of 90 days in a fenced-off area in the back of River Park, which will otherwise remain open on its regular schedule. That time-frame includes a 30-day setup period, a 30-day active period and a 30-day take-down and cleanup period.

The active period, scheduled for Sept. 10 through Oct. 9, is the only time that people will be living there, Dubbels said. The expectation is that the center will be fully removed by Nov. 10.

Dubbels said that people will only be allowed to enter the triage center to transition to suitable housing options, “which will entail a program that they need to sign up for and participate fully in.”

“No one, whether in the triage center program or not, will be allowed to return to the riverbed once removed,” she said. “There will be ongoing monitoring and law enforcement to ensure the riverbed remains clear of any inhabitants from there on.”

The total cost of the triage center, according to the city’s staff report, is expected to be about $40,000. The report notes that those funds have not been secured and that they will be “dependent upon community donations and partner agency efforts.”

“That amount has also been forwarded to the administrative offices of the County of Santa Barbara to see if there may be any assistance they can possibly provide,” read a portion of the report.

Other potential costs are similarly unclear, according to city staff.

“The cost to contract with a clean-up specialist who is trained and capable of cleaning up the encampments and all the hazardous waste that goes along with it has yet to be determined,” read the staff report. “The contractor could also be on a retainer and available for clean-up as requested during the ongoing relocation of additional homeless encampments. The approximate cost ... will be substantial, most likely reaching into the hundreds of thousands.”

The report goes on to note that about $65,000 from the city’s storm water division has already been appropriated and approved by the city council and may potentially be used to aid with clearing the riverbed of people so that the cleanup may start.

Dubbels noted during her presentation that city staff would likely return to request more funding from the council as the process moves along.

While the costs for the cleanup could rise into the six figures, a few of the council members noted that the societal costs could be much greater if nothing is done.

“We’re putting a lot of public safety people at risk, so I think there’s a value that we don’t have in there [the report] and it’s very expensive if we don’t (do something) — probably 10 times that,” Councilman Jim Mosby said, noting the health hazards and recent crimes in the riverbed, including last year’s murder and ensuing officer-involved shooting, and the 12 fires that the Lompoc Fire Department has responded to this year in the riverbed.

Mayor Bob Lingl and Councilwoman Jenelle Osborne also encouraged community members to get involved and donate to agencies that are supporting the effort.

Walsh noted that some of the people removed from the riverbed may choose to remain in Lompoc and could potentially go on to cause problems. While he said that many of the riverbed occupants have indicated that they plan to leave the area once they are evicted, he advised local residents to alert the police department of any crime-related issues involving suspected homeless people.

“Just be diligent,” he said to the community. “If you’re on Facebook complaining, that’s not helping. You’ve got to tell us what’s going on. You’ve got to call us.”

In other action Tuesday, the council voted unanimously to approve a management agreement with Visit Lompoc Inc., for implementation of the renewed Lompoc Tourism Improvement District. The new agreement, which the city reported would have no immediate fiscal impact, runs for 10 years, from 2019 through 2028.

The council also unanimously approved the Economic Develop Committee’s two-year strategic plan for 2018 through 2020. The main goals for the committee during that time, according to the plan, will be to create opportunities for investment, market Lompoc, and initiate a supportive business environment within the city.

The next regular meeting of the Lompoc City Council is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21.

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.


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