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Pinched by popularity – Edwards Crossing’s parking is packed, despite homicides

Becky Trout

On a recent Sunday afternoon, children splashed in the shallow water at Edwards Crossing, teenagers sunbathed on the half-submerged rocks, and two men tossed a football while standing in the South Yuba River’s gentle current.

In the past two years, the remote site’s serenity was shattered by two homicides – a shooting in September 2003 and a beating death in July 2002. But river planners say the biggest concern for the crossing is not a reputation for violence.

In fact, it’s the area’s consistent popularity that poses the largest problems.

As part of the effort to assemble a South Yuba River Comprehensive Management Plan, state and federal officials are reviewing each of the river’s six recreational crossings. Recently, they have been setting up one-day information booths at the crossings, hoping to meet river users unlikely to attend the group’s Tuesday meetings.

The information will be used to create the comprehensive plan, the goal of which is to manage the public lands along the river more effectively.

For Edwards Crossing, the chief danger is caused by the vehicles that line the steep narrow road on sunny days, said Lorna Dobrovolny, an ecologist with the California Department of Parks and Recreation who set up an information booth at the crossing Sunday.

As many as 100 cars have parked in an area that can comfortably hold 25 vehicles, if that. With no turn-around and a thin road edged by steep drop-offs, the site is ill-prepared for a fire evacuation, planners said. It can also make day trips difficult.

Dobrovolny said several ideas have been considered, including charging parking fees and shuttling visitors down to the river.

Both have significant drawbacks. Fees are unpopular and difficult to enforce and a shuttle service requires a transportation service of some sort, Dobrovolny said.

Dobrovolny canvassed for ideas Sunday, trading an icy bottle of water for the ideas of river users. She said one of the primary benefits of surveying at the river was the opportunity to witness the unique personality of each of the crossings, which will help craft a plan suited to each area.

She rattles off the crossings’ reputations easily: Bridgeport is for families, Purdon attracts local Ridge residents, and Highway 49 is for people in a rush to get in the river. But Dobrovolny said she favors Edwards because it attracts the “widest spectrum” of people.

Sections of each crossing are also differentiated. At Edwards, upstream is a bit rowdier and downstream is mellower, Dobrovolny said.

Edwards reputation for variety was well-earned Sunday. On that day, most visitors came from Nevada City or the Bay Area. They were families, teenagers and adults of all sorts, including one young man with dreadlocks toting a bag of bugs.

On a Friday evening last September, however, the crossing was far from peaceful. On that night, Larry Leffingwell was found shot beside his car. In July 2002, James Vannberg was beaten to death a mile up the river. In a strange twist, Leffingwell’s son David was an accomplice in the earlier murder, for which David Burke Jr. is now serving a sentence of 26 years to life in prison.

The high-profile instances of violence at the crossing didn’t seem to bother the swimmers and sun-seekers out Sunday.

“I’m not worried about murder; there’s too many people here,” said John Wickwire, visiting from Lake of the Pines.

“I haven’t even seen a car break-in here,” said Drew Abrams, the Bureau of land Management ranger who regularly patrols the area.

Living near the site of the slayings doesn’t bother Lisa Mathews, who lives with her husband, Kevin, a mile north of the crossing. “We know the neighborhood and feel very safe here.”

Nevada County Sheriff’s Lt. Tom Carrington concurred. “(The murders) just happened there,” he said.

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