Moses Lake City Council Member Mark Fancher listens during a long meeting Tuesday where the primary matter of discussion was what to do with illegally parked RVs used as residences.
CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD
The Moses Lake City Council chamber was packed on Tuesday as the council met to discuss possible parking sites for vehicles used as residences.
The RVs pictured above have become a focal point for heated discussions at Moses Lake City Council meetings of late. Residents and business owners have expressed frustration and anger over what they see as the city's shortcomings in addressing the problem of homelessness and associated issues.
Staff Writer | May 10, 2023 5:24 PM
MOSES LAKE — The city of Moses Lake does not need to have a permanent parking place for RVs and other vehicles used as residences in order to enforce city parking ordinances, Moses Lake City Manager Allison Williams told members of the City Council on Tuesday.
However, the lack of such a place puts the city at risk of being sued when it forces residents who are otherwise without living accommodations to move on or impounds their vehicles, Williams said.
“Having a location is the least-risky option that aligns us with the sleep center,” Williams told council members during a four-and-one-half-hour meeting dominated by discussion and citizen comments on the city’s approach to the homeless situation.
During the lengthy, standing-room-only meeting, council members said they have been troubled by the process that has prompted them to look at several patches of city-owned property — the dog park near Paxson and Central drives, a large vacant lot on Road 4 NE near the city’s service yard and the former Moses Lake Police Department pistol range on Randolph Road just south of SGL Carbon on the Port of Moses Lake — as a site for temporary parking of vehicles used as residences in order to get them off both city streets and private property.
A number of such RVs are parked on private property stub-outs along Central Drive across from Lauzier Park between Home Depot and Goodwill. The city issued eviction notices to the RV owners and residents in late April. Those living there have until the end of May to find new places to park or leave town.
Mayor Don Myers expressed frustration that he understood prior to the meeting that the city had to have a location for those living in the RVs to move to in order to enforce parking regulations.
“If that’s not the case, let’s just enforce our ordinances,” Myers said.
At the center of the discussion are a pair of court decisions from the last few years extending the rights of homeless people. In Martin v. Boise, U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that the city of Boise could not arrest homeless people for sleeping on public property if the city did not have adequate shelter beds or space. In Long v. City of Seattle, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that the city of Seattle violated the constitutional rights of Stephen Long, a homeless man living in his truck in Seattle, when the city impounded his truck.
As a result, Williams said the Association of Washington Cities, the Municipal Research and Services Center — a non-profit that advises local governments in Washington — and the city’s insurer, Washington Cities Insurance Authority, have all been advising local governments to treat both unsheltered people who camp on city property and people who live in vehicles parked on city property the same.
In addition, Williams also said that in the same timeframe, legislation passed in Olympia has subjected police activity to increased scrutiny. As a result, the course of action that subjects the city to the least amount of legal liability is to create a parking place for vehicles used as residences similar to the sleep center.
However, City Attorney Katherine Kennison told council members the city’s current ordinances already restrict where RVs can be parked within the city limits and require anyone seeking to park an RV on a city street or parking lot to obtain a permit that cannot exceed 14 days in a calendar year from the city manager. Williams added she has not issued nor been asked to issue any such permits.
“That’s what you currently have in your code,” Kennison said. “There is no restriction, the courts have been clear about that, about your ability to enforce your parking regulations. The issue, as we talked about, is what happens when you enforce.”
Kennison said enforcement is not risk-free — several cities are being sued over how they have enforced their parking restrictions in similar situations — but the city retains that ability even without a dedicated parking area. She said, however, the city needs to make some changes to rules and regulations around impounding vehicles.
“So, it’s really about enforcement, then,” said Council Member Mark Fancher. “The code is strong enough. We need to make a decision to enforce.”
More than 20 local residents spoke in opposition to potential parking sites and general concern over crime and drug use they attribute to those experiencing homelessness.
“I work for a business that is directly across the street from the current homeless shelter and we have been victims of quite a bit of crime,” said Kenton Spotted Bear, noting that people have been caught using bolt cutters to get inside his employer’s fence and that company trucks have been vandalized. “We’ve patched over 30 different parts in our fence. It’s a big fence.”
Prominent real estate agent and business owner Gary Mann said the time has come for the city to stop privileging the rights of those living in homelessness over other residents because in the past, the rights of those without homes took preference over the safety of children, the ability to use city parks or patronize downtown businesses.
“We all have modified our behavior, and we have lost some of our rights and some of our freedoms,” Mann told council members. “It’s time to stop.”
Williams told council members that city staff would revise current parking and impound ordinances for council review and possible approval at its next meeting on May 23, and said she has also begun discussions with Police Chief Kevin Fuhr on how to ensure adequate police staff to enforce those measures.
“Obviously, there is a dollar cost to that, but we’ll have both available for you,” she said.
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.