The Garberville Town Square was enclosed in plastic fencing Thursday. | Submitted photo.

The Garberville Town Square may be a regular public gathering spot, a tree-lined plaza hosting a weekly farmers’ market, live music and candlelight vigils, but it’s also private property, and this week the square’s board of directors agreed to fence it off. They did so after receiving a petition signed by dozens of local business owners and residents saying the square “has become a local hub for drug dealing, and a haven for aggressive dogs and people who don’t respect the town or its ideals.”

Locals have complained for years about “trimmigrants,” ne’er-do-wells and homeless people gathering in the square and exhibiting aggressive, sometimes criminal behavior. Early Wednesday morning, just a few hours before the Garberville Town Square Board of Directors’ meeting, a man was brutally attacked in the square, leaving a trail of blood on the concrete as he fled the scene.

Later that morning the board met in the square, as they usually do, and roughly an hour-and-a-half in, Board President Nancy George told the Outpost, they heard from Joshua Sweet. He owns the building just west of the square, home to Cecil’s New Orleans Bistro, and he’d come with his girlfriend to present the signed petition, George said.

“It had signatures from pretty much every business in the town of Garberville asking us to fence it off,” she said. The petition called for a temporary shut-down of the square “until a solution is found to make the area safe and respectable.” It noted reports of fighting, drug and alcohol use, all-night parties and other bad behavior, though in typical SoHum fashion it strikes a utopian note. “We can and will make it what we had all dreamed it would be,” the statement reads, “but until then we demand this action.”

A utopian vision is what gave rise to the square in the first place. About 15 years ago a small group of Garberville residents decided to purchase an unpaved lot in the middle of town, a dirty patch where people parked their cars, and “turn it into a paradise,” George said. From parking lot to paradise, like the Joni Mitchell song inverted. 

Alas, no one is calling it a paradise these days. And some people foresaw trouble from the beginning. In a letter submitted to the board along with the petition, SoHum resident Ernie Branscomb says, literally, “I told you so.” His letter goes on to complain that opponents of the square, people who thought the space should be used for parking, were never given a chance to express their concerns in a public meeting. 

“We complained that the park would certainly become an attractive nuisance as a place for bums, derelicts of society, dogs and drug dealers to congregate, and would force out the kinds of people and children that the park was intended for,” Branscomb’s letter reads. “We knew.”

But he goes on to say that, “By any standard the park is beautiful and well constructed,” an asset to the community in many ways. Regardless, he concludes that since park owners haven’t policed the area well enough it should be closed and fenced off.

The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, meanwhile, told KRCR News that it’s difficult to enforce trespassing laws when the square is open to the public. “We can’t really pick and choose who can stay and who can go,” Sgt. Jesse Taylor said.

George said that, despite having some disagreements with Sweet, including his placement of a storage container and a port-a-potty onto the square without written consent, the board decided “almost immediately” to do as the petition requested and close the square — at least temporarily. “We did it because we want to show solidarity with the town,” she said.

According to George, Sweet was the one who actually installed the fence and agreed to be responsible for it. The board has drafted a memorandum of understanding saying the fence will be up only until another solution can be found, and even if one isn’t found the fence will come down in 60 days. However the memo has yet to be signed. The fence will also come down temporarily for farmers’ markets and other scheduled events, George said.

The Outpost reached out to Sweet with a voicemail. He returned the call a bit later but didn’t want to say much. “I am not speaking or taking interviews of any kind,” he said, adding that he didn’t think there was much of a story. We asked if he could at least confirm that he presented the petition to the board. “How about this?” he said curtly, “I don’t have a statement at this time.”

George reiterated that it’s a sign of solidarity that the board agreed to the temporary closure. One suggestion that came up at the board meeting, she said, was to ask everyone who signed the petition to chip in $20 a month “to pay for security for the entire town.”

Whether or not a solution is found, the fence will come down after harvest season. For Christmastime, George said, the board wants to put up a wishing tree.