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Groups Unite with Vision of Trails and Public Access Along Ventura River

By Rebecca Wicks
Ventura Breeze
Aug. 8, 2012

When you think of idyllic rivers, ours – the Ventura River – doesn’t usually top the list. In fact, many have forgotten it or don’t even know it’s there.

“Ventura has a river?” said John Gonzales who lives just off of Ventura Avenue, less than a quarter mile from the river. “I thought that was an aqueduct or where the sewer water ran off or something.”

Paul Jenkin and a slew of other organizations want to change that. Joining together under the name Friends of Ventura River the coalition includes more than two dozen groups from Patagonia and the Sierra Club to the Downtown Ventura Organization and a number of local, state and federal government agencies.

The group’s aim is fairly simple: to create trails and open access up to the public. The task is attainable as all 21 parcels and nine property owners of the Ventura River area are on board with the project in concept. And, there is no current opposition to the plan.

This however, does not make project Ventura River Parkway, as it has been dubbed by the coalition, an easy one to achieve. As many Venturans will tell you, the river bottom, especially near the ocean is dirty, overgrown and home to a number of homeless encampments.

“There is no trash or bathroom service out there so unless the people living there chose to truck out all of their waste materials, all that stuff goes into our waterways,” said Peter Brown, community services manager for the city. “And, the way the water current travels, the waste goes past our entire community.”

The area has also been a frequent site for crime, drug use and brush fires. The most recent fire occurred the last weekend in July and is believed by many to have been set deliberately by homeless individuals who live in the river bottom.

“There is a lot of emotion going on down there right now,” said Brown. “Imagine someone telling you that you have six months to leave your home after having lived there in some cases for decades.”

Much of this area has been overlooked until now because the overgrown vegetation, some of it on private property, provided a visual shield and shelter for the homeless to illegally set up camp. An environmental clean up is scheduled to take place in early September. After this, Brown described a grid-like approach to the clearing out of homeless encampments and brush, which will take place through March of next year. After that, city and county staff, contractors, volunteers and property owners will remove the illegal camps on an on-going basis.

Brown said help for those living in the river bottom will be available. Services, explained Brown are focused on assisting those who are seeking a “hand up” and not a “hand out.”

“The reality is there will be services for people who are interested in receiving services,” said Brown who said the help available will be the same that is always available throughout the city many of those services provided by non profit organizations.

Jenkin is optimistic about the coordination between organizations that stretch from the Matilija Dam to the ocean.

“Whether they are involved for social, environmental or economic reasons, all of these organizations see the need to solve the problems we have with our river bottom,” said Jenkin, who serves as the Friends of Ventura River organizer. “It’s a simple idea of transforming a current liability to a community asset.”

Beyond clearing out non-native plants and homeless encampments, Jenkin said the group is working on looking for public access along the levy in order to continue the beach bike trail. And, while there has been a lot of impetus put on the lower river area, Jenkin is quick to point out the progress the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy has made in the last decade. The group has successfully acquired five miles of river land from Foster Park north toward Ojai.

The Ventura River Parkway project became a real possibility only recently when a final piece of private property was acquired by the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy. It was the final piece of the “river puzzle” making a complete group of property owners – including government groups who were all on the same page and committed to the same vision.

Public land along the river was bequeathed by philanthropists E.P. Foster and Adrian G. “Buddy” Wood. Foster gave land where the Ventura Fairgrounds and Foster County Park reside today while Wood left to the state the property on which Emma Wood State Beach sits.

The Ventura City Council as well as the Ventura County Board of Supervisors have both voted to support the vision of the Ventura River Parkway.