SKOWHEGAN — There are a picnic table, a portable toilet and blankets on the ground in woods at the edge of Coburn Avenue, near downtown.
A lean-to is lashed together with leather strips and thin rope, holding blue and yellow tarpaulins in a makeshift campsite. Newspapers, food containers and other debris are scattered on the site.
There also is a banner stretched across the trees saying: “Nature Park, Nature Trails for the Homeless People of Somerset County.”
On Friday, the site got its first visitor since landowner Bruce Obert, a developer from Norridgewock, laid it out earlier this summer. Obert said he was just trying to give underprivileged people a place to go and in no way was trying to spite the town or the Coburn Avenue neighbors.
Eighty-four-year-old Rod Rodriquez and his Rottweiler have set up camp on the property — and neighbors on the otherwise quiet residential street are unhappy.
No laws have been broken, town officials said Monday. Police Chief Michael Emmons said he takes full responsibility for moving Rodriquez to the site, as he and town officials look for a place for the man to stay.
“What do you do with the poor man?” Emmons asked Monday. “He’s pretty much harmless; he’s homeless and he’s harmless.”
Emmons said he would like anyone who will rent Rodriquez an apartment to call the police station at 474-6908.
Pam Nixon, who lives next to the encampment, said police brought Rodriquez there last week and dropped him off. A police officer also brought him bottled water last week and food on Monday.
“I have nothing against this man, but there’s several people who live alone on this street and there is a concern,” Nixon said Monday. “It’s a very scary dog; it’s a Rottweiler – an intimidating dog. But the concern is that it could attract more, more people.”
Nixon said she was told that town officials, including police, attempted to take Rodriquez and his dog to the homeless shelter at the Baptist Church on McClellan Street, but Rodriquez said he did not want to stay there because of their rules.
“He didn’t want to go there,” Nixon said. “The quote from him is that he’s a hermit; he likes to be in the woods.”
Nixon and others said they remember reading about Rodriquez a few years ago when he set up a blanket camp behind Empire Grill, off Water Street in Skowhegan. Rodriquez in September 2006 had a Great Dane with him.
Before Skowhegan, he had been in Farmington, Waterville and Madison. Residents complained about his sudden outbursts, and said he often appeared verbally confrontational, according to published reports.
Now he is back in Skowhegan, with a sign posted near his camp: Man and dog seek lodging with lights. He also has been reported sleeping and lingering in various locations downtown, police said.
An attempt to interview Rodriquez on Monday while he was having lunch behind the police station was not successful because of the presence of the dog.
Other residents of Coburn Avenue stopped by the site Monday morning to express their concerns.
Everett Flannery III, who lives on the street, said he doesn’t like what he sees going on. He said Obert, the landowner, is miffed that residents will not buy his small piece of land, since he is not allowed to build on it.
“It all comes down with Bruce Obert, I guess, and the dispute he is having with the town and some of the residents up here,” Flannery said. “I’m pretty unimpressed with his professionalism. I’m just appalled with all this.”
Skowhegan Code Enforcement Officer Randy Gray said the homeless camp property is about 10,000 square feet but is too close to a nearby stream for a building permit under state-mandated shoreland zoning rules. Other area homes on either side of Obert’s land were built before the law passed, he said.
Contacted by phone Monday afternoon, Obert said he is not trying to spite the residents of Coburn Avenue or the town.
“It’s a useless piece of land to me,” Obert said. “The town told me that I can’t build on it because of the setback rules on a little stream, which doesn’t have a name and is dried up at this point now.
“So I thought I’d make it into a little park and let the unprivileged people get a chance to have a place to sit and use the picnic table and enjoy the fresh outdoors. He should be able to come and go as he pleases.”