Pepper tree ‘abode’ housewares cleared
City and county officials are preparing to cut way back on the size of a massive stand of Brazilian pepper trees where homeless people periodically have lived.
Located near the granite rocks of the south jetty, the grove lies on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property that’s leased by Nueces County as part of I.B. Magee Beach Park.
As viewed from Cotter Avenue, near the beach, nothing can be seen within the grove – a tightly woven tangle of pepper trees that covers about a quarter of an acre of land. Anyone who ventures inside can see that someone has taken pains to cut and shape the interior so that it’s an abode, with discernible “rooms.”
Nueces County Precinct 4 constable’s deputies visited the grove about a month ago and removed tent materials, a couple of couches, a folding table, a Coleman stove and other items, according to Constable Bobby Sherwood. All of it was put in a dumpster and hauled away, he said.
There were no backpacks or personal items that needed to be saved, Sherwood said.
Deputies didn’t encounter any of the site’s inhabitants, he said.
Exactly who the folks were and where they’re sleeping now were unclear at press time.
Judging from the number of items that deputies found, Sherwood estimated that perhaps six people had been camping there. The number of empty food cans present suggested that the spot had been inhabited for about 10 days, he said.
But Sherwood said different groups of people have been living in those bushes, on and off, for years. He guessed that his deputies have cleared stuff out of the grove five to 10 times during the 32 years he has been constable.
Sherwood said he never has seen any indication that families with children have lived in the grove.
Nueces County Coastal Parks Department Director Scott Cross said his workers “have had to go in there and run people out and clean up the trash” at least once or twice a year.
What kinds of folks lived there most recently?
On one hand, Cross said drug paraphernalia has been found at the site.
On the other hand, Sherwood said some of the folks there likely had jobs. Some had been seen in the past, “going out with carpenter belts to a job.”
Why evict people from the pepper trees at all?
“We don’t want that to become a haven,” Sherwood said. “The more convenient and more comfortable it is, it will attract the wrong element – the guys who are burglarizing cars, breaking into coin machines (at the park) … things like that.”
The grove is a stone’s throw from the grounds of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI). Graduate students and grounds employees at the institute recently have seen people emerging from the trees and “cruising our campus, looking carefully at vehicles and scoping out our property,” said Steve Lanoux, assistant director for operations at UTMSI.
“One of the guys was checking out the female students, and the (students) were getting nervous,” Lanoux said.
Lanoux said he didn’t know of any crimes that he could say for sure were committed by people living in the bushes.
Pepper trees are an invasive plant species that folks in Port Aransas have been working for years to eradicate. Cross said his maintenance workers “have had to go in there and run people out and clean up the trash” at least once or twice a year. Recently, that included a makeshift restroom, he said.
Cross and Lanoux said they are working together and with others to put together a plan to remove all of the female pepper plants, leaving behind males, so the stand would be sterile and wouldn’t spread.
It would be good to leave some plants in place because they are good habitat for birds, Cross said.
Lanoux said UTMSI staff has started getting volunteers to germinate native plant species so they could put together a community planting effort to replace some of the pepper trees with the kind of vegetation that naturally would be there. Cross indicated he wouldn’t have any objection to that.
Lanoux, who also is a Port Aransas City Council member, said he is hoping the city will use brush trucks to haul away the pepper trees that are cut down.
The effort likely will get started soon after Christmas, Cross said.