El Sobrante community activists criticize portable toilet behind library

By Tom Lochner Contra Costa Times


EL SOBRANTE -- A new port-a-potty behind the El Sobrante Library has upset some community activists, who say it was a bad idea to place it near a community garden, tot lot, Friends of the Library book storage house, and the entrance to the library conference room.

The portable toilet was installed late last month on the Contra Costa Library branch grounds in response to what county Supervisor John Gioia, of Richmond, said is "a public health issue: frequent defecation in the creek area which Public Works has had to clean up, and feces contaminating the creek."

Homeless people for years have used nearby San Pablo Creek as a corridor -- and as a toilet.

The activists agree there is a human waste issue, but they and the county do not see eye-to-eye on the proposed remedy.

"I don't have a problem with a port-a-potty somewhere but not in a community garden that hundreds and hundreds of volunteers have converted from a rat-infested, trash-infested parcel overgrown with ivy," said Judy Ward of Spawners, a creek-restoration and conservation group. "We've had a lot of problems with ... vagrants passing through the garden and using areas specifically behind the book house to relieve themselves, anywhere out of sight."

"I understand why they put (the potty) in," said Barbara Pendergrass, chairwoman of the El Sobrante Municipal Advisory Council. "Maybe they could have put it in a different location."

County officials say there aren't many, if any, other county-owned sites along the creek where a port-a-potty could be installed. Gioia said the toilet will be monitored frequently for any problems.

Critics say the toilet is not readily visible from nearby streets and would require monitors, such as county Sheriff's deputies, to enter into the library parking lot. Pendergrass suggested putting it closer to a roadway.

Eleanor Loynd, co-chairwoman of the El Sobrante Valley Planning and Zoning Advisory Committee, complained in an April 3 letter to Gioia that "there are no signs on the portable toilet building that warn people to stay out of the toilet and that it is there for the use of the area homeless persons."

Gioia said Tuesday that it would not be appropriate to put up such signs. Moreover, he said, the toilet is supposed to be a convenience to the general public, similar to portable toilets in parks.

Lavonna Martin, acting director of Homeless Programs for the county Health Services Department, said the port-a-potty addresses an immediate environmental and public health concern, and that putting it behind the library was "a natural option, given the proximity to the creek and where homeless individuals tend to congregate."

"Long-term solutions to homelessness take longer," she said.

As for concerns of an influx of new homeless people, Martin said, "A port-a-potty is not enough of a draw to bring in other individuals to El Sobrante."

Gioia on Tuesday said the toilet is still in "an exploration period."

"If it becomes a problem, it's gone," he said.

Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760 or tlochner@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at twitter.com/tomlochner.