A regular routine check on a January morning took an odd turn when two Ashland parks staffers stumbled on a 6- to 8-foot tall, manmade platform of soil and wood in the hillside area of Lithia Park.
“(Whoever) did this, they cut into the hillside of Lithia Park, gathered scattered wood, cut down some trees and dug up the soil around there to build it,” said Jason Minica, open space and outer parks supervisor.
It is so odd that Minica struggled to find a word to describe it during an interview Wednesday. But, he said, to some in the Ashland homeless community, the elevated level in the middle of the park had served as a memorial site.
“When we pulled it down, some of the homeless who were hanging around there started yelling at us. They were outraged,” Minica said. “ That’s when we learned what it is.”
Minica said some of them told him they scattered ashes on the platform, and it was “disrespectful” to the community to tear it down.
Located among unnamed trails in the hillside of the park, the platform laid on a site up the wooden steps off Fork Street, secluded from various angles and out of sight of hikers, Minica said. The site is also known as a popular spot for the homeless population to gather, parks Director Michael Black told the commission at a meeting on Monday.
The platform is illegal and is considered vandalism, Black said.
Concerns ramped up when parks staff found another platform nearby — bigger in size — just three weeks after they found and pulled down the first one, Minica told the commission.
“They cut even further back in the hillside, making it bigger. I’d say around 20 percent bigger than the first one we pulled down,” Minica said.
“We don’t tend to bring a maintenance issue to the commission, but this proved to be a continuous problem,” Black said.
Black said there’s a process through a city’s committee to get approval for a memorial site in the city. Parks has no record of an authorized memorial site of the type in Lithia Park.
"(The city) has never reviewed or approved it,” Black said, adding he received an angry phone call when the site was first torn down. “There’s a process to things like this.”
Minica said parks department has dealt with the same type of vandalism before, where parks land and trail was being cut into, “but nothing of this size.” The platform was made up of roughly 40 yards of soil dug out of parks’ land, Minica said.
“Erosion is our biggest concern about this,” Minica said. “It’s also illegal to cut into our trails like this.”
Parks staff found stolen tools from the first platform, as well as torches and glass pipes that Minica suspected were for drug uses.
“We found shovels that are actually belonged to parks,” he said. “The rakes could come from anywhere — they could be ours too, but we can’t prove that.”
Early morning Thursday, Minica came back with a backhoe, tearing down the second platform parks has found this year. This time, parks staff was accompanied by a police officer, just in case.
Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said later Thursday he was not aware of any contention at the site Thursday morning.
The site will extra patrol time, O’Meara said. Minica said parks has put up warning signs and will also increase patrol in the area.
O’Meara said the vandalism in Lithia Park is a continuing problem for the city, and police has an open investigation on it.
“It is definitely vandalism, which is a criminal charge,” he said, adding in some cases, the vandals could also be charged with trespassing or criminal mischief.
— Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or email@example.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.