A Park Comes Back to Life

Times Staff Writer

Life is peaceful these days in the canyon by the river.

You can hear the breeze in the branches, and the gurgle of water. The chirping of birds wafts through trees climbed by bands of squirrels. And less than 20 feet away, the whoosh of traffic along the Riverside Freeway provides a counterpoint.

“After a while you don’t notice it,” says Virginia Thomas, 57, a weekend resident of Canyon RV Park, a little corner of Featherly Regional Park, an idyllic spot in the shadow of one of Orange County’s busiest transportation corridors.

Once a haven for the homeless and often cited as an example of the failure of both public and private management, the place is now seen as a vision of what can be done.


“I consider it a success story,” says Rich Adler, senior planner for the county’s division of harbors, beaches and parks.

The story began a decade ago when Orange County leased the 66-acre park on the banks of the Santa Ana River in Yorba Linda to a private management company to save money.

Back then, says Tom Klems, the park’s district supervisor, the place was so full of homeless people “it looked like ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ ” The county was losing $400,000 a year on its operation.

Enter Vernon St. Clair, president of Torrance-based St. Clair Investments Inc., which took over the park’s management in 1993. Almost immediately the county got out from under its financial burden.

But turning around a place with such a reputation was no easy task.

St. Clair raised the admission price and tried appealing to a more upscale crowd. But he angered both county employees, by reducing the park’s maintenance staff from 13 to five, and environmentalists, who opposed the privatization of public open space.

“The place is in a state of disrepair,” one disgruntled would-be user complained to a reporter in 1995.

County inspections cited environmental and maintenance concerns.


A consultant’s report prepared for the Orange County Employees Assn. in 1997 concurred, saying the park “has deteriorated since privatization, primarily because of limited staffing, lack of operating funds, and inadequate and improper maintenance.” And the county’s Harbors, Beaches and Parks Commission put St. Clair on notice to, in essence, shape up or ship out by the end of that year.

“It was the consensus of the commission that the park was not being maintained properly,” then-chairman Don Bankhead said.

Despite the criticisms, St. Clair persuaded the county in 1998 to extend his lease for 30 years. About the same time, he hired a husband-and-wife team, Bill and Colleen Thompson, as on-site managers. And ever since, officials and campers agree, there’s never been cause to look back.

Among the improvements at the RV park: aggressive maintenance and cleanup, the addition of electrical hookups, tightened security and park patrol, the elimination of daytime-only use, and an area for tents, as well as several rental cabins.


“The place is beautiful,” Bill Thompson says. “All it needed was to be spruced up.”

Today, he says, about 74% of the park’s 140 RV spaces -- half of them for long-term use -- are occupied by campers paying $29.50 a night. Stays for short-timers average about five nights. And what once resembled a homeless encampment, Thompson says, now attracts expensive motor homes.

“The majority of times,” he says, “it’s couples -- people who like the birds and the rabbits and the squirrels.”

Other Featherly Park users include music lovers attending twice-monthly performances in the park’s amphitheater, dog show and car show attendees, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Christian revivalists, a group that puts on Elizabethan festivals, professional photographers staging photo shoots and an organization for the owners of antique trailers.


“We are getting busier all the time,” Thompson says.

One result, according to county officials, is that annual revenue -- of which the county gets 10% -- has risen from $229,000 in 1998 to about $725,000 last year.

It is likely to increase even more, they say, after the installation of new sewer lines, expected to be completed by May.

“That will bring us up to being a five-star-quality RV park,” St. Clair says. “It’s a wonderful place -- a wilderness park right in the middle of the city.”


“Word’s gotten out that it’s no longer trashy,” Thompson says.

That seemed to be the consensus on a recent Friday afternoon at the park just off Gypsum Canyon Road. “It’s a lovely spot,” said Karen Thompson, 58, who has lived here with her husband in a 34-foot motor home for seven of the last 24 months. “We like the trees and the landscape -- it’s very peaceful.”

Jim Healley, another long-timer, agreed: “The place is clean. There are no transients. You feel like you can leave everything open.”

At the other end of the park, a group of part-time RVers was settling in for the weekend. “We try to get out here at least once a month,” said Linda Pflaster, 59, a motor home enthusiast from Fullerton.


And what of the freeway noise?

Pflaster says it serves as a reminder of what she’s escaped.

“We used to enjoy it,” she said. “Before they put that big wall in [a sound wall Caltrans added], you could see everybody going by. The 91 Freeway was an endless source of entertainment.”